How 1 researcher + 1 film-maker are making research a reality for 1,000s

Molly Shoichet, Laureate of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award for advances in biomedical engineering, is a University Professor at the University of Toronto, and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering. As the co-founder of an online public outreach campaign called Research2Reality, she is using the power of social media to highlight cutting edge research in Canada to spark nationwide awareness.

Inspiration while on vacation

Ironically, my mission to use online social media as a platform to build awareness for Canadian research began on a vacation to Greece, where I found myself without an internet connection. I was on the Island of Crete with my husband, Kevin Bartus. We were talking about the Toronto International Film Festival happening back home, which brings celebrities and movie-goers from around the globe to Toronto.

I thought about the Biomedical Communications program at the University of Toronto, where students communicate complex science to the public through animation. I was inspired by the power of visual arts to bring ideas to the masses, and wondered if we could bring these two worlds together – science and film – to engage the public in cutting edge research.

Why should people care?

You might ask why the public would be interested in research. Research is at the core of invention; invention is at the core of innovation; and innovation is at the core of our future. Our slogan, “Today’s research, tomorrow’s reality” boils this idea down to a catchphrase that we want to become part of a national discussion.

The right film-maker

I knew that the films had to be short and snappy to take advantage of our “snack culture” – an expression that I had heard on national public radio. I wanted them to feel polished and cinematic. To do this, I needed to find a film-maker who shared my passion for research.

Mike MacMillan had filmed a series of commercials for the University of Toronto called “ThisIsUofT.” The videos were short and a little edgy, making them fun and light while also staying on message. I thought that Mike could be the partner that I needed.

At our first meeting, Mike had been up most of the previous night making a feature film and thus stumbled into my office severely sleep-deprived. Notwithstanding (or may be because he was so tired), he loved the essence of this idea. While Mike spends most of his time writing/producing/directing feature films, he also shares my passion for research. Together we founded Research2Reality and took my nascent idea and grew it.

We have interviewed over 70 researchers at six university campuses across Canada. No doubt, Mike’s disarming personality and cinematic style brought our interviews to a new level.

Pitch perfect

We started by making a pilot video, based on work by prominent researchers and colleagues who specialize in heart disease. On a shoe-string budget funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, we produced a one-minute video with a compelling and emotional story, rooted in research. The pilot enabled us to share our vision for what we wanted to do: start a national social media campaign to connect today’s research with tomorrow’s reality.

Finding funds and partners

Raising the funds to launch a national campaign was (and still is) a huge challenge. There were many meetings that ended with a handshake and admiration, but little else.

Luckily, there were a few visionaries who understood that together we could reach more people than we could alone. Paul Young, then Vice President of Research at the University of Toronto, and Amit Chakma, President at Western University were our first backers. With their support, we were able to recruit four other research-intensive universities: Waterloo, McMaster, University of British Columbia, and University of Alberta.

We traveled to each of our six university partners, creating a series of video interviews and commercials for broadcast online and on television.

Our national launch

We launched Research2Reality on May 11, 2015, and have grown to over 1,000 followers on our social media platforms in just five months. Our launch event, hosted by award-winning science journalist Ivan Semeniuk, brought together researchers from across Canada. My husband, who had been on this journey from the start (and who was celebrating his 50th birthday that night!), was also with me to celebrate the launch.

See us on television

We were thrilled when Discovery Canada and Discovery Science Canada joined as our national media partners. We now have three videos being televised 10-14 times every week – something that we know none of us could have done alone.

Growing up and reaching out

Research2Reality continues to grow and evolve. We release new material every day and we continue to welcome new partners in academia, government and industry.

Promoting Research Rockstars

This experience has been so enriching. Through our travels, I’ve met some amazing people who are really changing lives. We call them our research rockstars as a small tribute to the amazing projects they lead.

Eugenia Kumacheva, 2009 L’Oreal-UNESCO Laureate For Women in Science, designs and synthesizes soft materials that mimic nature. 

Irena Creed explores safe and sustainable access to clean water. 

Raymond Laflamme investigates quantum physics and how the new quantum reality will shape our future. 

Sally Aitken is designing forests for the future, taking advantage of genetics to ensure that our trees survive the changing environment.

Everyone I met has inspired me. There are so many more great stories being told.

Join us!  I invite you to join us online for a daily dose of inspiration – at or join the discussion on Twitter or Facebook. 

For Women in Science

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