Reaching out

    As the programs director for the Alberta Science Network, Jeffrey Newton has made a career out of teaching science beyond the classroom box.

    By Kristy Condon on December 17, 2015

    At just 87 square kilometres, the Caribbean island of St. Maarten is the small­est sea island in the world split between two nations. And just like his home island, shared between France and the Netherlands, Jeffrey Newton (‘13 PhD) found himself split between the desire to pursue the life of an aca­demic and a feeling of responsibility to share his passion with the world.

    After earning a master’s degree in acarology—the study of mites—at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, Newton was reluctant to jump straight into a PhD and a career in academia. “As a student, I noticed that many professors, who were very smart and had amazing things to share, had a hard time sharing these things optimally,” he explains. “I was so worried that if I continued on this road, the same thing would happen to me.”

    So, instead of plunging straight into his PhD, Newton moved back to St. Maarten to sample some other career options. “I was a locksmith, a database manager; I worked in a medical uni­versity where I applied bar codes in a morgue; I tried growing my own crops; I did some carpentry,” he recalls. “Part of it was to remind myself what everyone else is doing to live and survive. This is how the real world works, and academia is extremely privileged.”

    Coming from four generations of Caribbean heritage, Newton never thought of his island as anything special. However, after studies abroad, he began to see his home through new eyes and founded a local junior ranger’s club to share his perspective with local children. “I had been hiking around and fishing [on St. Maarten] all my life, pick­ing up hermit crabs, grabbing iguanas from trees, catching fish in our open cisterns, catching bugs—so this is what I started doing with kids,” he explains. “I loved doing this, but the island grew too small for me; it was time to go.”

    He learned about an opportunity to study soil mites at the University of Alberta and immediately applied. “There are literally only a few people in the world who are experts in that area,” he explains. One of them is biological sciences professor Heather Proctor, who became Newton’s PhD supervisor. “It still surprises me how few Edmonto­nians or even U of A undergrads under­stand what kind of world-class talent the U of A houses."

    "What would be better than just being able to genuinely share what you love in a way that contributes so positively to society?"

    Newton found inspiration in Proctor’s ability to clearly communicate her research. “Heather showed me that when you’re a researcher, you can still be an excellent educator. I was so impressed by her passion for teaching that I decided I wanted to be a full-time science educator.”

    He began volunteering with an on-campus science outreach group, Let’s Talk Science, which soon led to a senior coor­dinator position. Through this process, he was able to build a network to recruit and train volunteer presenters while growing the program and handling the overall administration. “That’s when I realized that there were a lot of people who think that science outreach is legitimate—this is a real thing,” he says. “At the time, I couldn’t believe that you could do something like this for an hon­est living. What would be better than just being able to genuinely share what you love in a way that contributes so positively to society?”

    From there, the opportunities blos­somed. Newton is now the programs director for the Alberta Science Network, where he recruits and trains volunteers (scientists, engineers, and topic experts) to give free classroom presentations for elementary and secondary schools. He also provides workshops and free science resource kits for teachers to help them deliver science in a more engaging way.

    The teacher workshops are particu­larly popular, with the goal of providing teachers with simple tools they can use to lead hands-on activities in their own classes to enrich the existing curriculum rather than replace it. “Our workshops are kind of like a Swiss army knife: here are a number of options. Pick which one works for you. We want to make sure they are an efficient use of the teacher’s time and make it as useful as we can.”

    For Newton, the positive feedback he gets from students is a reward in itself. “The word ‘science’ has the potential for all these negative connota­tions—that you have to be extreme, that you have to be a genius—but none of them are true,” he explains. “What we’re really hoping is that students see one of our presenters and get a deeper understanding of how science and engineering shape the entire world around us, and that it’s done by very normal, but enthusiastic people,” he says.

    Newton’s location may have changed— he’s now based full-time in Edmonton— but his outlook from his time touring kids around the island of St. Maarten has remained consistent. There may not be iguanas in the trees of Edmonton, but there is no shortage of things to observe and learn about. “There’s a whole Serengeti of creatures out there killing each other, foraging, fighting for their lives, right now under this grass—it’s like the struggle for life and death.

    “Evolution is taking place,” he explains. “And because I know these things, I can communicate these things to other people and get them excited. And that’s why people get into research in the first place— to get excited, to learn new things.”