Whether it was relocating from Singapore to Canada as a child, or progressing from undergrad studies to a Master`s thesis, Kristy Myles has always been on the move. After completing her BSc in Natural Sciences at the University of Calgary (U of C) with a concentration in biology and chemistry, she made a “slight switch” to interpretative social sciences for her grad studies.
“In my last year of undergrad I took a course focused in science and technology studies and found it very interesting,” said Myles, a Master's student in the Department of Geography at the U of C. “I liked the content, and the professor wound up being my supervisor for my Master’s thesis, so it was quite fortuitous.”
Okay, so a lot of people study geography, but how many find their passion in human geography?
“If you ask me why I made that my focus, it’s not a simple answer,” said Myles. “To me, human geography is the study of space and place, so it’s very relational. I’m intrigued by the idea that knowledge and technology actually emerge from particular social contexts and cultures. When you think about the development and application of innovative technologies, it’s important to consider those contexts.”
That interest sparked her Master’s thesis and, ultimately, her work with Genome Alberta.
“My thesis is looking at the social complexities of genomic selection development. What kinds of values and priorities are deemed important or peripheral in technological innovation?”
Can we talk?
Myles is especially intrigued by moments where we can open up conversations and bring diverse perspectives together to address problems. Part of that “opening up”, in her view, is ensuring the transparency of the research process and employing that transparency as a tool to build trust.
“I’m not saying policy makers, end-users or publics will question genomic research, but if they have questions around who is doing it and why, transparency can help allay their concerns.”
Thanks to that chance connection with the right professor in her undergrad, Myles’s background in biology and her interest in genetics, she joined the research project entitled “Resilient Forests (RES-FOR): Climate, Pests & Policy – Genomic Applications”.
Co-sponsored by Genome Alberta, the project is responding to threats to forest health from climate change and climate-induced insect outbreaks. It aims to apply genomics and mathematical models in tree breeding programs to select more effectively for trees that are pest resistant and disease tolerant.
In particular, Myles is working on the GE3LS portion of the study, an acronym for Genomics and its Ethical, Environmental, Economic, Legal and Social aspects. GE3LS is a required component of all Genome Alberta projects and investigates questions at the intersection of genomics and society.
Though there is much to learn as part of the project, Myles feels good about her progress and her peers.
“I don’t have the in-depth knowledge of the research scientists, but I can understand a lot of what they are telling me, which helps for a science communicator. Also, the RES-FOR team is special. I deal with upstream development in my research so I interact a lot with the researchers, and they are fantastic people.”
She has heard that working and collaborating with large teams can be challenging; fortunately, she finds herself part of a good news story with RES-FOR.
“This project has really exceeded my expectations. All the team members are busy with their own work, yet are so willing to assist each other, so I’ve been pretty lucky in my introduction to research.”
With the current stage of the study coming to a close, most of the deliverables are expected this year. Based on the findings, there should be more research to come as part of the four-year initiative. Like her colleagues, Myles is grateful to their sponsors that include Genome Alberta, Genome Canada, Genome BC, and partners from academia, government and industry.
Given the array of backers, it seems fitting that the project’s impact will be widespread.
“This initiative is framed in a way that the benefits are fairly distributed among industry and society. However, all technologies have trade-offs. Our GE3LS team hopes to help with a communication plan that evenly weighs and creates space to discuss these trade-offs,” said Myles. “For industry, RES-FOR will provide new tools that help tree breeders select a broader range of traits, and trees that are better adapted to future climates faster than conventional breeding. In terms of creating healthy, resilient forests, there are societal and economic benefits from that as we strive to make forestry both competitive and sustainable.”
On the road again
As the parents of two, Myles and her husband Andy – married in 2006 – have a vested interest in sustainability for their son James (aged 11) and daughter Taya (9). It’s a lot to think about, but she still finds time to be with her family, snowboard and play the piano, guitar and ukulele. The rest of her waking hours are spent chauffeuring her “very active” children to activities, no small feat when you live in the Calgary suburbs.
Always open to a new challenge, Myles has just started a training program called GEFSES-CREATE, which stands for Genomic Editing for Food Security and Environmental Sustainability. It fits well with her research interest at the interface of emergent genomic technology development and regulatory policy decision-making.
“A lot of my questions are driven by how we can responsibly and democratically regulate these types of technologies. This training may help generate some answers by focusing on two kinds of skills: scientific literacy – such as gene editing – and social literacy.”
Though she is quick to focus in starting a new project, it doesn’t mean she has tunnel vision when it comes to her career.
“My interests are really diverse, so it’s hard to limit myself to one area. Right now, I’m really enjoying my research and am ready to start thinking about what’s next.”
Given her need for constant movement, that should come as no surprise.