Attention to detail
By Mike Foster
Tyler Shendruk has a knack for explaining hugely complex scientific concepts in plain language. It’s a trait he honed as a science columnist for the University of Ottawa’s English-language student newspaper, The Fulcrum, while completing his PhD thesis, which used computational physics to study how molecules and small particles can be separated on microfluidic chips.
“There are ways to separate molecules like DNA in a chemistry set-up but, when you shrink these methods down, sometimes the physics changes. So for a couple of specific cases, I worked out what the consequences of shrinking would be,” explains Shendruk in a telephone interview from England.
Microfluidics has a lot of potential for advances in chemistry and medicine, with an impact similar to how computer chips replaced vacuum tubes, he says. The field is both a science and a technology, as it involves the flow of liquids inside channels that are a micrometer or smaller in size, which cannot be seen by the naked eye. Working under Faculty of Science professor Gary Slater in his polymer physics research group at uOttawa’s Department of Physics, Shendruk developed new theoretical techniques for separating fluidic particles.
In 2013, Shendruk’s defended his PhD thesis, Theoretical and Computational Studies of Hydrodynamics-based Separation of Particles and Polymers in Microfluidic Channels, for which he won the 2014 Pierre Laberge Prize in sciences for the best doctoral thesis. At the time, he had already begun his postdoctoral studies in physics at Oxford University.
However, he discovered he missed the thrill of writing about popular science. So he put his name in for a British Science Association Media Fellowship and ended up working at the prestigious Financial Times for the month of August 2014.
“I commuted into London every day from Oxford to work in the newsroom, covering approximately a story a day. Every day was completely different. I loved it! Academics moves at a different much slower pace than the media,” he says.
Shendruk continues to pitch and write articles for FT, covering a rich variety of topics on everything from anti-freeze proteins found in Antarctic icefish to anti-fragility theory in physics. His latest article, “Palaeobotany: a prehistoric plant trap,” published in January 2015, was about the discovery of a prehistoric carnivorous plant that, 35 to 47 million years ago, used tentacles to trap insects.
Writing about the work of other scientists for the general public helps put his own highly specialized research into perspective, he says.
“Sometimes as scientists we have to work so hard on the fine details that it becomes easy to lose track of the big picture. Being able to step aside as a journalist and look at only the big picture helps me keep track of the big picture in my research,” he adds.
Shendruk says many scientists and researchers see themselves as having a primary responsibility for communicating their work to their peers. However, he says he feels a responsibility to communicate complex scientific ideas to the public.
“My recipe is—when speaking to researchers—if I don’t understand something then I don’t let them go on. I have to understand it as fully as I can if I am going to communicate it in any way to readers. Scientists are extremely generous with their time. They love to talk about what they are doing, but you have to constantly remind them that you aren’t a specialist, you don’t know the meaning of the technical terms, you don’t have the insight that they have,” says Shendruk.
As a science columnist for The Fulcrum from 2011 to 2013, he wrote about research that was taking place on the uOttawa campus. Shendruk says he had the privilege of learning from a broad range of professors and researchers, adding that most students don’t get that opportunity. One highlight for him was covering Department of Biology professor Vance Trudeau’s work on how pharmaceutical drugs find their way into the environment. The research found that the antidepressant Prozac can inhibit sexual activity in male goldfish, leading to Shendruk’s article Goldfish on Prozac.
“It was fascinating to hear what other people were doing in fields vastly different from my own,” says Shendruk.
At Oxford, Shendruk is studying a phenomenon known as cytoplasmic streaming—how flows within living cells transport biomolecules, such as nutrients.
“I build computer algorithms to simulate cytoplasmic streaming. We treat the interior of the cell as a very generic, active fluid material and then examine what properties that fluid material needs in order to generate these flows. I study it theoretically, not with a microscope ... My work is attempting to understand how these flows arise out of the action of motor proteins,” he says.
“Physicists have traditionally been interested in systems that are at equilibrium, in passive materials. But in the last few years, there has been a blossoming of thought about materials that are active, meaning materials where, at the smallest level, the material itself is doing something to transform one form of energy into kinetic energy.”
Shendruk says one of the highlights of being at Oxford is working with physics professor Julia Yeomans. She was an early developer of a hydrodynamics algorithm, which he used in his PhD work. He plans to use a variation of this algorithm in his current research.
He says he misses the discussions over dinner about academic articles and crazy ideas with his uOttawa colleagues, however.
Originally from Saskatoon and now at Oxford via uOttawa, from The Fulcrum to the Financial Times, Shendruk and his inquisitive and sharp mind have already travelled far. At the age of 30 with a PhD and some postdoctoral work under his belt, there’s no telling where he’ll end up next.
As part of the 2015 Alumni Week celebrations, from May 4 to May 9, The Fulcrum is marking its 75th volume and is inviting all past contributors to join the festivities. The Fulcrum event, which takes place in Ottawa on May 9, will unveil the Fulcrum Volume 75 exhibition.
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