Blog Post

Behind the scenes at CCA: Q&A with interns Alexei Halpin and Erin Macpherson

In early June, Alexei Halpin and Erin Macpherson began six-month internships at the CCA. They’ve spent the past five months engaging directly in the assessment process: attending panel meetings and conducting research in support of various projects.

The CCA internship program gives recent graduates with graduate or professional degrees, and post-doctoral fellows, a unique opportunity to work at the interface of science and public policy.

Alexei and Erin share what drew them to the internship, what they’ve learned from the experience, and their own unique areas of expertise.

Alexei Halpin

Tell us about yourself and your area of research.

I’m a physicist by training, and more specifically a spectroscopist. This means that I have used lasers of various types to interrogate how molecules or materials accomplish their function. One example I worked on during my PhD involved a protein involved in mammalian vision. The absorption of a photon of light by the pigment found in this protein triggers the first step in the process of vision, and involves one of the fastest known chemical reactions, proceeding at timescales shorter than a millionth of a millionth of a second. We built a laser providing suitably short pulses of light, in order to monitor how the visual pigment redistributes the energy obtained after capturing a photon. This allowed us to identify which of the atoms that make up this pigment undergo concerted motion to drive this first step in the proteins function.

What drew you to this internship at the CCA?

Twitter! I was introduced to CCA when the report Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada appeared in my timeline. I was very interested to read an independent and multidisciplinary report on that topic, and have kept up with the CCA ever since.

What’s your favourite aspect of the internship so far? What’s the most interesting thing you have learned to date?

My favourite aspect thus far has been the panel meetings. It’s been very interesting to listen in on the discussions, and to have the opportunity for one-on-one conversations with experts during some of the breaks. It’s hard to pinpoint a single most interesting thing I have learned so far. Both of the assessments I am working on lie far outside of my previous domain of expertise, and each assessment has been a source of interesting new knowledge both from scientific and more socio-economic standpoints.  

What would your dream assessment be?

I would be interested to read or participate in an assessment on the future of Canadian cities. The combination of increasing urbanization, ageing infrastructure, disruptive technologies (e.g., the Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto), climate change, housing market issues, etc., are going to lead to many changes in the urban environment over the coming decades. I think it would actually fit the CCA’s strengths very well to gather research on the socio-economic, technological and ethical implications for planning modern Canadian cities (naturally, without giving recommendations). 

If you could invite anyone, living or dead, to dinner, who would it be?

Probably Yotam Ottolenghi or Melissa Clark, because they write my favourite cookbooks and dinner would be excellent.

What are you reading right now?

I’m in between books right now. I was recently reading Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, but have taken a break because it was too terrifying (we all need to sleep more). I’m either going to move on to My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, or An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews. The former is a novel I have heard great things about, the latter is a biography of a Soviet spy who is described by all the big espionage novelists like Le Carré and Fleming as the “spy to end spies.”

Erin Macpherson

Tell us about yourself and your area of research.

I did a B.Sc. at the University of Toronto in neuroscience and psychology and a M.Sc. at McMaster University in Rehabilitation Science, where my work focused on ways to monitor and maintain the physical functioning of older adults.

During my master’s I started volunteering with Let’s Talk Science, and loved it! I got to coordinate a fantastic team of enthusiastic post-secondary science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students. We organized events and programs that got kids engaged in STEM in a fun and hands-on way. Following my degree, I got hired by Let’s Talk Science full-time and worked for four years to coordinate national programs and partnerships that sought to engage Indigenous youth in locally relevant and meaningful STEM experiences. This was an incredible opportunity for two-way learning with the amazing individuals and communities I met across Canada.

What drew you to this internship at the CCA?

I am interested in how decision makers interpret and use scientific evidence and how the public understands the research process. I’m also interested in how different fields communicate with one another to find common ground in terms of their terminology, assumptions, and conclusions. The internship seemed like a great opportunity to learn more about how the CCA is bringing together experts from different fields to synthesize knowledge and communicate the relevance and implications of these findings.

What’s your favourite aspect of the internship so far? What’s the most interesting thing you have learned to date?

I have enjoyed being able to delve into a particular topic in-depth. It has been great to be able to practice transforming a body of literature on a topic into a written product that both accurately portrays its complexities and nuances, and communicates it in an accessible and compelling way.

What would your dream assessment be?

I would love to be part of an assessment that evaluates evidence on leading practices in teaching and learning in formal and/or informal educational settings.

What are you reading right now?

I usually tend towards reading non-fiction, but because it was summertime I picked up a novel called Normal People by Sally Rooney ― and it did not disappoint! I also recently read The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World, which is an optimistic look at how developing technologies coupled with a different mindset could create a more sustainable food future. Up next, I plan to reread my favourite book. It is called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

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