On Tree-planting and the Summarizing of Research

Recently, at the Ontario Science Centre, Michael Johnny, Manager of the KMb Unit at York University, which was enjoying its annual outing, had occasion to talk about the summer he planted trees as a student. A lot of trees. According to Johnny, in this particular outfit, you were trucked out to the wilds of Ontario and, once there, entrusted with trays and trays of saplings. You were paid something like ten cents a tree, and put up in a nearby town just scarce enough in amusements to ensure that you could only bank the money you made. Your per diem got you fed and, once in awhile, tipsy. You put yourself through school, doing this. You also planted a forest.
Summarizing York research, as I’ve done for the KMb Unit for the last few summers, is nowhere near as taxing as driving a shovel into the earth and setting a sapling, several hundred times a day, for days on end. But growing a library of summaries does want the monk-like patience of people who’ve been left to their own devices for long stretches of time (i.e. students on summer break, tasked with one specific job). Each summary, you see, was once a blank Word doc, conjured up by a click. And making something of that Word doc requires a fair amount of quiet work, of reading studies, of brow-furrowing, of E-mailing researchers for their feedback. You finish one, then conjure up another Word doc, and start all over. But by the end of the summer, where there was once nothing, there’s suddenly a small forest.
Of course, it can be hard to see the trees for the forest. In other words, it’s easy to forget, having amassed so many of the things, that each summary has its roots in a study, a hypothesis, a life. Each summary, each ResearchSnapshot, as we like to call them, presents a glimpse of what a York researcher has been up to, thinking about, agonizing over. These ResearchSnapshots distil months – years – of effort. And this particular batch offers new insights on diabetes, poverty, homelessness – so many problems that Canadians face every day. They hold out a branch to policymakers, practitioners, and researchers looking to get a handle on urgent issues. (You might say they are a different kind of digging.) Keep an eye on www.researchimpact.ca. Take a tour through some 40 new summaries, by myself and others in the KMb Unit, coming soon….