Chris Chang-Yen Phillips

3MT 2024 Finalist Chris Chang-Yen Phillips

History, Classics, and Religion, Social Sciences + Humanities

Thesis: Millions Of Specimens Are Ours For The Taking

Introduce yourself:

I'm a storyteller and researcher with a passion for connecting people and the planet, and I just defended my Master's in history.

What are you researching and what do you hope comes out of your research?

My research focuses on power relationships between paleontologists and other actors in Yoho National Park in the twentieth century. I hope my research inspires park managers, paleontologists, and the public to consider how scientists’ interactions with fossil beds like the Burgess Shale can change those spaces.

How does presenting a Three Minute Thesis (3MT) help you to explain your research to the public?

Embracing the Three Minute Thesis format has been a fun challenge. Condensing historical research about almost a century of change in a national park is tough. It’s encouraged me to sharpen my focus when discussing my research with people outside my field. It’s also been a fun opportunity to do more illustrations for my thesis project, and to spread the good word of the beauty of the Burgess Shale organisms and what they can teach us about evolution.

What inspires you to do research?

I think environmental history is endlessly interesting and exciting because it shows us examples of the many ways that humans and landscapes have shaped each other. It’s easy to get stuck in clichés – like the idea that human presence is inherently bad for the rest of nature. Historical research can show us that things we take for granted may be surprisingly recent developments, and things could have turned out differently. I think that invites us to think about new ways of making relationships with each other and the rest of nature.

What are three key words important to your 3MT?

Parks, power, and paleontology.

How does your research impact local, provincial, or global communities?

The Canadian government has committed to some very ambitious international goals to protect more lands and waters – partly by creating more parks. My research shows the complicated ways that parks can change a place. Paleontologists have found positive partnerships with park managers in Yoho, and have been able to do important research on the Burgess Shale fossils because of federal regulations protecting them. At the same time, Indigenous peoples were excluded from parts of their territory when parks like Yoho were created, and modern park regulations have made it more difficult for visitors to get close to the fossils.

If you had to dedicate your research to anyone from the past, present, or future, who would it be and why?

I’d probably dedicate this work to Alexander Wilson, a Toronto-based journalist and landscape designer. I learned a lot about how deliberately constructed North America’s “natural” spaces are, and who benefits from those choices, from his book The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez.

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips – Millions Of Specimens Are Ours For The Taking

Watch Chris' Three Minute Thesis