Polar Bear Territory

Story and photos by Carol Patterson

As a mechanic tightened an antifreeze clamp with his armed guard watching for polar bears, an astrophysicist discussed black hole research with a water conservationist. Responsible for this Churchill, Manitoba adventure – except for the antifreeze leak – was Mary Anne Moser, President and Co-founder of Beakerhead, an organization bringing people together at the intersection of science, engineering and art. 

Beakerhead started with immersive science communication programs helping scientists share science stories in ways in which non-scientists could relate. Feeling that it was difficult to talk about innovation without demonstrating it, Moser and her partner, Jay Ingram (former host of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks and co-host of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet) launched a ‘spectacle’ in 2013 that Moser describes as “Burning Man meets the World Science Festival meets Maker Faire.”

Surprising its audience with fun and interactive activities (at a promotional event in 2012 Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi rode a 2,000 pound mechanical spider) the spectacle’s popularity rapidly eclipsed the other programs. 

“It was the child that ate its mother,” explained Moser on the almost 200,000 visitors that attended the September 2018 five-day spectacle with 60 events including the chance to watch giant Tesla coils fire electric arcs and a massive fire-breathing UFO.

A science lover with a B.Sc. (Zoology), a M.A. (Communications) and a Ph.D., Moser took another chance this fall when Beakerhead put its science communication program on the road to Churchill where science communication is being reinvented with a polar bear cam, bear jail murals, and webinars beamed round the world from a roving tundra buggy.

Moser believes “Science is where the true adventure is! Science is all about exploring. People tend to think it’s about the results but it’s always about the questions. Those questions and that pursuit of new knowledge are not easy to relate to other people. So it’s a vast untapped journey.”

In Churchill a group of scientists filed into Frontiers North’s Tundra Buggy Lodge, dropping their bags next to one of 20 bunk beds in a long industrial trailer perched atop two-meter-high tires. There were curtains for visual privacy for sleeping and earplugs for light sleepers but this felt like summer camp for adults. Scientists from Edmonton to Seattle waited politely for one of the three washrooms (water is trucked in and grey water and waste trucked out meaning showers are short to prevent water shortages and hard feelings).

Happy hour got very happy when a polar bear wandered by the dining buggy; it’s four-month fast a stark contrast to the fresh fish and greens being served inside. People scrambled for their cameras and a spot at the walkway rails, their enthusiasm for creatures at the center of polar science obvious. Moser observed, “Scientists talk about how hard it is for polar bears to survive and (being here) you get to feel that.”

Moser kept the learning going as the moon rose, setting up a game of PowerPoint Karaoke where participants gave impromptu science talks with no prep (and no singing) helping them hone their communication skills in a light-hearted way. The next day the group took turns riding in Polar Bear Buggy 1 as Polar Bear International researchers searched for bears and beamed footage live to animal lovers.

“It’s very important to get people out of their everyday spaces,” Moser explained, “Research shows immersive residencies like we run can have a really big impact when part of what you are trying to achieve is to change a culture and that is what we are trying to do. We are trying to help the people in science support each other when it comes to bringing their messages to mainstream audiences. “ 

Moser’s path to Churchill and a career working with scientists may have defied the odds. A mother of triplets, she is like many women who left a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) career path without reaching the top echelons. “After doing my undergraduate degree I went and studied communications and my interdisciplinary degree wasn’t pure research.” But she may be making a bigger impact on science than expected. 

“Beakerhead is in the barrier removal business. We’re trying to help people understand that people who are different than you make a better world. Right now different is causing a lot of conflict. That’s where Beakerhead is coming from in terms of values. If we could see that people who are different from us are actually making the social fabric stronger there would be less conflict and that would make me really happy,” she mused.

On the final day of the polar bear safari people snapped pictures of lumbering bears and took a try at driving a few meters in the tundra buggy (think dune buggy crossed with dump truck). Multiple conversations and laughter filled the air, the sign of a bonded group of new friends. Moser reflected on what’s next for Beakerhead. “Over the past few years of doing Beakerhead we bit off a lot,” she explained, “We understand what works and what doesn’t. We’re going to do what a good scientist does and learn from the observations and now zero in on the things that have the greatest impact.” 

That doesn’t mean they’ll stop travelling. A two-week immersive program is planned at the Banff Centre next summer where the bears will be brown instead of white.

“Ultimately what we are trying to do is share experiences in science and engineering that everyone feels they can be part of, even if they hated math in school.” Moser concluded. To do it, she needs as many people as possible telling science stories.  Judging by the smiles on the polar explorers her team’s getting bigger.