This feature originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Trek.
As a self-described “biologist with a twist,” Dr. Carin Bondar has travelled the world to communicate science to audiences in person, through books, and on television.
Bondar received a PhD from the Faculty of Forestry in 2007 for her research on the ecological role of signal crayfish in its various stages of development from juvenile to adult. “I’ve always been interested in the process of development, and how development changes how animals behave,” she says.
That sense of curiosity has propelled Bondar throughout her career. Since graduating she has been the writer and/or host of seven TV series and six web series, and is the author of four books. She has worked with Science Channel, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and National Geographic Wild. Her TED talk, “The birds and the bees are just the beginning,” has been viewed more than 2.5 million times. And in 2016 she received the Canadian Journal of Zoologists Public Outreach Award.
Her favourite topic? Sex. “I spend a lot of time thinking about why I’m so focussed on sex,” she says. “Humans are universally interested in it, so it’s a good platform for talking about other things, like behaviour, evolution, conservation, and many other topics.”
Bondar uses tools like scale, metaphor and analogy to keep audiences entertained while they learn. “I did an episode of Wild Sex (a web series) about variations in penis size among species, and it turns out that the animal with the longest penis relative to body size is the humble barnacle. Since they are so small, we decided to make a model of the barnacle penis scaled up to human proportions. So we had this huge fabric penis that was 15 metres long. It’s an amazing teaching tool and I’ve taken it with me to speaking events all over.”
The path from crayfish research to giant barnacle penis wasn’t a straight one. In 2005, in the midst of her PhD studies, Bondar’s father and brother died within months of each other and she moved from Vancouver to Chilliwack to manage the family business. “I was married with a small child, and I had to put my research on hold for a while,” she says. “Thanks to the internet I was able to access online libraries, and I defended my PhD thesis when I was eight months pregnant with my second child.”
In 2007, blogging was taking off, and Bondar jumped on that bandwagon. “I wanted to create a career involving science and communication, but I was also at home with my kids,” she says. Her blog caught the attention of Scientific American, where she became a regular contributor. “It was a wonderful opportunity, and it opened a lot of doors for me,” she says.
Next came the web series Wild Sex, then the TED talk, then a book based on the web series, then Outrageous Acts of Science for Science Channel. From 2012 to 2018, Bondar appeared in 114 episodes of Outrageous Acts of Science, discussing the science behind homemade experiments and stunts. In 2015, this was the most-watched show on Science Channel.
Bondar credits her childhood passions of dance and musical theatre with her ease in front of a camera. “I grew up performing, so I am very much at home with an audience,” she says. “I found my speaking style and voice organically. Having kids helped because kids don’t need you to dilute your message or dress it up. You need to speak in a way that makes sense to them.”
As a busy freelancer, Bondar has several projects on the go: a couple of book proposals, a media company, and a new nonprofit that will provide bursaries for moms who need childcare while they’re working on their PhD or postdoctoral research.
“I always have to have a bunch of irons in the fire,” she says. “It might look like I’m involved in a wide range of projects, but everything is surprisingly connected when the details are filled in.”
Karen Kain, Dian Fossey
Describe the place you most like to spend time.
Outside. Literally anywhere that I can be in nature and away from the major imprints of humanity.
What was the last thing you read?
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. For any biologist or nature lover, it is an absolute delight.
What or who makes you laugh out loud?
Dry, witty science humor. Irreverence and sarcasm. Fail videos.
What’s the most important lesson you ever learned?
Always dig deeper. The times when you are beat down to your very core are (ironically and beautifully) the times that foster who you really are and who you really want to be.
What’s your idea of the perfect day?
So many choices! I get to travel a lot for my work – and one of my favorite things to do (anywhere) is just wander, without a time limit. Especially in a new and unfamiliar place – I just love to get lost (as lost as anyone can get these days with GPS phones) and explore. To visit the quiet corners and local spaces as a person and not as a tourist.
What was your nickname at school?
What is your most prized possession?
My four children! Although I suppose they are not actual possessions. Compared to them I don’t own anything of value. Is this a trick question?
What would be the title of your biography?
She was weird, but she made it.
If a genie granted you one wish, what would it be?
Abolish the patriarchy.
What item have you owned for the longest time?
My big brother (who passed in 2005) spoiled me with some beautiful jewelry by Scandinavian designer Georg Jensen. I wear it always, and treasure it greatly.
Whom do you most admire (living or dead) and why?
Michelle Obama, for her grace, intelligence, eloquence and style.
What would you like your epitaph to say?
I doubt I’ll have one – but I’d love to be immortalized in a message of “Remember to be kind.”
If you could invent something, what would it be?
I’m an ideas person. I invent theories for all kinds of things – not actual items per se. I’m not terribly practical, but I do have a theory for why that is the case!
In which era would you most like to have lived, and why?
I love living in the age of emergent technology – because I am fascinated by the ultimate impact of technology on the ultimate evolution of humanity.
What are you afraid of?
What is your latest purchase?
I just got back from a work trip to LA, and I found the most incredible fuchsia retro dress from the 70s. An absolute treasure!
Name the skill or talent you would most like to have
If this is a practical question, I would love to have a more organized mind. If this is an “outside the box” question, I would love to be able to fly.
Which three pieces of music would you take to that desert island?
A quiet and happy piano piece, anything by Deva Premal, and The Greatest Showman soundtrack. (Can we count that as just one?)
Which famous person (living or dead) do you think (or have you been told) you most resemble?
I’ve gotten Claire Danes, Ginnifer Goodwin and Mary Tyler Moore 😀
What is your pet peeve?
What is the secret to a good life?
Gratitude. Check your level of gratitude often, and end your day by thinking of what made you grateful – small things, big things, anything. It’s simple and it works.
Do you have a personal motto?
I aim to create a body of work that I am proud of – whether this work is in my personal life or my professional life. If, at the end of my days, I can reflect on a worthy body of work and a set of beautiful friendships, I feel that I will be satisfied.
Also: be nice. It’s really not that hard.
What’s the most important thing left on your bucket list?
Oh, so many things! I want to experience as much of anything as I possibly can – while I still have a sound body and mind to work with. 😀 I like to find the beauty in anything, so it really doesn’t matter where/what/when – I’ll find something about it to love.
What are your UBC highlights?
I love that I earned my PhD from such a wonderful university. I loved the opportunity to work across the forestry and zoology faculties, to TA in diverse classes and to work in the rich and beautiful research forest in Maple Ridge. My PhD supervisor John Richardson was a source of great camaraderie and support, and I maintain strong contacts from my PhD cohort. I’m grateful!