Biologist Marc Johnson knows the value of an early introduction to science. His own childhood featured stacks of Little Golden Book nature guides and free-range access to the Presqu’ile Park nature centre near his grandmother’s cottage on the northern shores of Lake Ontario.
“I would be there pretty much every day, all day long,” recalls Johnson, who soon became a fixture at the centre where he collected specimens for the centre’s tanks and helped lead nature walks. At the age of nine, he booked a lunch with the park’s herpetologist, who laid out what it would take do a job like hers.
That experience set the young naturalist on the path to his life’s work. Decades later, Johnson is now an associate professor of evolutionary biology at U of T Mississauga, where he studies the relationship between evolution and urban environments.
“I was fortunate to find a passion early in life and know what I wanted to do at a very early age,” says Johnson. “That early exposure to nature was key.”
This week, the biologist will bring his love of science and nature to a new generation of future scientists. On Friday, Sept. 18, Johnson will help kick off Science Literacy Week with a free virtual event for elementary students across Canada. The annual roster of science-themed events hosted by libraries, museums, science centres, school and not-for-profits highlights the excitement and influence of science in our everyday lives.
Johnson will share his favourite children’s books on biodiversity, discuss his work as a scientist and field questions from the online audience. The live chat, hosted by Joe Grabowski, founder of science education Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, is open to everyone, but is geared towards young students.
The event launches a week-long celebration of sciences organized by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). This year’s theme is biodiversity, and features dozens of free online events that showcase the many ways kids and families can explore and enjoy the diversity of Canadian sciences.
Johnson is no stranger to talking to kids about science and the natural world. He often lead sessions for UTM’s Bring Our Children to Work Day workshops and, with his wife, Reagan Johnson, leads the Junior Naturalists Club with the Riverwood Conservancy in Mississauga. When the pandemic brought a pause to those meetings, Johnson and his family launched the #BiologyInYourBackyard YouTube channel to help families explore nature in their own backyards.
Johnson is happy to play a role in inspiring future scientists. “It’s incredibly important to demystify what science and scientists are,” he says. “Some may want to become scientists themselves, so it’s important to see real scientists and understand what they are doing and the diversity of who they are and what they do. It’s about making it more tangible to kids.”
“Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants is excited to collaborate with NSERC during Science Literacy Week to broadcast exciting Canadian scientists live into classrooms and to students at home,” says founder and host Grabowski. “These virtual connections with scientists and explorers around the world are more important than ever as students are returning to a school environment that will feel more confined than ever before.”
Johnson and Grabowski will be joined by NSERC president Alejandro Adem. “Science Literacy Week is about helping us all appreciate the science, discoveries and ingenuity shaping our lives,” Adem says. “By fostering a culture of scientific literacy, Canadians will be better equipped to challenge disinformation, think critically, and ultimately better understand the complicated world in which we live.”