Biologist

by Stewart Prest, submitted 2009

Jason Peterson is an artistic scientist. The Augustana alumnus, with a bachelor of science specializing in biology as well as a bachelor of arts in philosophy, is working towards a PhD in Behavioural Ecology at Simon Fraser University. He’s also an independent filmmaker.

Right now, Jason is focusing on bees. His PhD dissertation explores the impact of ecological conditions on the offspring of a particular type of bee, called a solitary leafcutter bee, or Megachile rotundata. The bee is used by alfalfa seed farmers and others to pollinate their crops.

“Essentially, I put the bees in their home which is a good distance away from the alfalfa crop, so they have to fly back and forth. I want to find out if the distance they have to fly has an impact on the sex allocation of the offspring. Farmers now often use five or six huge shelters for a field, whereas in the past they’d often have 50 or 60 smaller ones. This decrease of shelters increases the distance the bees have to fly. I’m trying to find out if that increase in distance results in a greater percentage of males being reproduced. Since only the females pollinate crops, an increase in the male population would have a real effect on overall crop pollination.”

His short films are another source of pride. “I work with a friend of mine from Augustana, Monty Simo. We generally put together short dramatic pieces, which we distribute to friends and make available online. We’ve also had works win film festivals in Red Deer, Grande Prairie and Medicine Hat, and also had a grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, which is neat.”
Still, when talking with Jason, one senses that his true love is science, both doing it and telling others about it. “When I started my Master’s, I got involved with an organization called ‘Let’s Talk Science’ (LTS). It’s a program that recruits undergraduate and graduate volunteers to promote science literacy among children. Basically, we go into schools and do little activities to show kids that science can be fun. I’m a huge fan of the program.”

He has proved a very effective ambassador. Last year, he was selected as the national volunteer of the year by LTS. “It was great to be nominated and selected – it validated the work I was doing. I’m still involved too, working as the program coordinator at SFU.”

Even when talking about a personal trauma – he had surgery in the spring of 2008 to remove part of a recently discovered brain tumour – he’s quick to mention that his surgery used the brand new NeuroArm, a hi-tech new surgical robot developed at the University of Calgary.

As with everything else, Jason discusses the experience simply and openly. “In terms of how it is changing my life, I honestly have a hard time pinning it down. In reality, December 19th when I had the initial seizure and the following weeks were such major moments in my life that it’s hard to remember how things were before. I basically feel the same, but I'm sure things have changed. I’ve been surrounded by wonderfully supportive people, my family and friends, and that really helps.”

The conversation soon turns to other things though, as Jason is ready to move onwards.