26 Jun 2015

Saskatoon Offers Robotic Cow Massagers, Big Physics and More

By Pippa Wysong (June 26, 2015)

TORONTO – From robotic cow massagers to photon accelerators and big physics, to a major vaccine development centre, Saskatoon is a hub of science, discovery and outreach.  This, of course, was a delightful find for the nearly 100 members of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA) who attended the annual conference there. We couldn’t get enough of what the University of Saskatchewan had to offer.

The first stop on campus was the Rayner Dairy Research and Teaching Facility, home to about 100 cows where research is done looking at how feed combinations affect milk production, the use of robotic technology, cow health, fertility and more. Between that and the Ryan-Dube Equine Performance Centre, veterinary college students learn how to work with big animals.

We saw cows, ready to be milked, wander into an automatic milking stall. A cow walks in, had treats she could snack on, and stands there while milking cups attach themselves to her udders – guided by a robotic vision system. When done, the cow we watched languidly walked out.

Next to this was a robotic arm in the form of a large spinning brush that could be activated by a cow to get a back-scratch or massage. And just as our guide was describing how cows voluntarily walk over to the device and activate it, one did. It was a bovine spa moment.

Devices like these are starting to appear in actual dairy farms because, well, the cows like it, according to Dr. Bernard Laarveld who teaches animal and poultry science. He noted that when outside, cows often rub their backs or sides against a fence or tree. It feels good. Mimicking this indoors makes cows happy.

We also toured the Canadian Light Source (CLS) where several physicists described their projects, ranging from using the synchrotron for medical diagnostics, to soil analysis. The ranges of light frequencies it uses means it is one of the most sensitive tools in Canada for analysing the structure and chemistry of materials, including soil, metals and biologic materials.

Impressively, the public can request tours for both the Rayner centre and the CLS.

Being in the agriculture research capital of Canada, the topic of GMOs came up. A keynote talk was given by Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO food activist who was behind various campaigns ripping GMO crops out of fields, in England. He now regrets the activism.

Why? The AAAS - The American Association for the Advancement of Science released a consensus statement saying climate change was real and that the science overwhelmingly demonstrated it. He was impressed with the science. But then the AAAS released a consensus statement saying GMOs are safe, and generally good for farming and for feeding the world's population. He couldn't support the one on climate change, and not the one on GMOs since the quality of the science was excellent for both, he said. During his activism days, he says he didn’t know the science.

The group got the chance to meet numerous other scientists at the conference in areas ranging from Arctic water quality, soil science, a researcher comparing heritage vs modern wheat, global food security, vaccine development, and more. And there was a public talk by Jay Ingram about Alzheimer’s Disease (he also gave a talk on effective and creative story-telling methods).

What about the art of science communication? Speakers from Mashable, Greymadder.net and the CBC gave inspiring talks about new ways of presenting stories and the changing market place. Personal stories still matter when it comes to what people want to read, said Alix Hayden who launched Greymadder. Professional development sessions were useful for beginner and seasoned science writers alike.

There was fun too, such as the boat tour on the Saskatchewn River on a perfect day. We mingled with researchers working on how to deal with the effects of climate change (such as drought) and managing this valuable river source – the water of which is needed for most of Canada’s crops. These world-class researchers are also working as consultants in China and advising how to reduce emissions and water pollution there – much of which eventually flows to Canadian waters.

With a population of only 250,000, the city of Saskatoon sure packs in a lot of world-class science.


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