Geography and planning PhD candidate Caroline Aubry-Wake is pictured on the Athabasca Glacier in July 2020.
Geography and planning PhD candidate Caroline Aubry-Wake is pictured on the Athabasca Glacier in July 2020. (Photo: Robin Heavens)

From doctoral thesis to coffee-table book, for USask researcher

University of Saskatchewan (USask) doctoral student Caroline Aubry-Wake woke up on Wednesday morning to her phone buzzing out of control.

By Research Profile and Impact

“I’m near 10,000 likes on this little video I thought would have like five likes—that’s what I usually get on Twitter,” she said.

The tweet in question features a short video of Aubry-Wake, flipping through a glossy, coffee-table style book describing her doctoral research in hydrology, and intended for a very personal audience: her partner, family, and friends.

Supervised by USask hydrologist Dr. John Pomeroy (PhD), Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, Aubry-Wake studies how mountain snow and ice provide water to downstream valleys, and how this mountain water supply is under pressure from by both climate and landscape changes.

After defending her thesis in October, Aubry-Wake will begin the next chapter of her academic career as a post-doctoral fellow at Utrecht University in the Netherlands with Dr. Walter Immerzeel (PhD), studying the interactions between snow, ice, and water in the Himalayas.

USask Research Profile and Impact (RPI) met with Aubry-Wake via Teams from Canmore, Alta., where she was about to leave on a hike into the mountains with her parents.

RPI: Why do you think your tweet has been so popular?

Caroline Aubry-Wake (CAW): I think that people think it's a great idea. I guess a lot of people want to do something to make their science more accessible, but they often don’t have a good idea on how to make it happen. And now, seeing someone else do it, they said, “Whoa, this is exactly what I've been wanting to do.”

RPI: What was the spark for you to make this book?

CAW: I did this science communications workshop two summers ago. They asked, “What if you could pitch a project to someone?” And I said, “I want to pitch a book that's like my thesis, but for someone like my mom. She is smart, she cares, but she is not a scientist.”

If it was a real book, I would interview other scientists and complement with stories beyond my own. I like sharing science stories, and I could bridge between science and non-science audiences. I am too busy finishing up my PhD to do something like that, so I decided to just make my own thing, and just print it for my parents and my friends.

Many of my friends and acquaintances care about the environment and the mountains, and they are curious about my work, and they want to be supportive. But no one’s going to read my thesis. It’s not rendered for them. So, I decided to make something specifically for them.

RPI: How long did it take to make?

CAW: It took me maybe three to four days, but I had been thinking about it on and off for a few months. It wasn't that time-consuming because a lot of the content I already had: there was an article I wrote for a workshop that I never submitted anywhere, social media captions that I just reformatted, my plain-language abstracts on my journal articles that I adapted. I had submitted some photos to photo contests. So, a lot of the material was already ready.

I only had to write a few things from scratch. Then, my little sister studies in design, so she helped me with the formatting. She said, “It’s going to be prettier if you use that font.”

RPI: How has the process of thinking about your whole body of work and everything you have done over the last five years changed how you explain what you do?

CAW: This book was really the result of me spending a lot of time explaining my science to people in different ways over the last few years. I’ve had a lot of practice on social media and with different types of outreach, but it felt quite special to put it all together in one book. It made me realize how much I have accomplished and how many people supported me in the process.

It also helped me see my science in a different lens. When I’m talking to other scientists, I talk about the innovative approaches, the methodological developments, the uncertainties. That’s very, very technical. Well, my Mom and Dad don’t care about those super technical aspects or how many citations I have. They don’t really care about the specific melt rate of the glacier at that specific point in time. They care that I almost fell into the creek while measuring streamflow, and that I got to fly in a helicopter to get to my field site, and they care about the big picture of climate change. So, I wrote stories of my experiences that conveyed my work in a different way.

RPI: What would you say to someone else who is finishing or who has finished their PhD, who is looking for another way to communicate the work they’ve done to family members?

CAW: I would say to go for it! A PhD is a huge chunk of your life, and it’s great to be able to share it with the people you care about.

I think for some people, doing something like this is a little bit outside of their comfort zone. We are trained to write papers and give scientific talks, not design coffee table books. But it’s worth it.

Doing a project like this allows you to step outside of the nuts and bolts of your science, and look more at the big picture, and that’s always beneficial. We often get stuck into thinking of the science we did, and we put our own science frame on it, instead of putting the frame of the people that we want to share it with. In the grand scheme of things, I do science to help society, so learning how to share the science beyond my thesis and beyond my academic peers is completely worthwhile.

Also, for me personally, it was super beneficial because I was very much in the PhD slump of, “This sucks. I’m so sick of it. I never want to look at my PhD thesis, again.”

And then I made this (book), and I realized, “Wow, that was fun. I had such a great five years.”

RPI: What was the hardest part of putting it together?

CAW: Deciding the structure.

At first, I did a few drafts—I had started maybe a few months ago, just playing with ideas.

At first, I thought, “I’m just going to put random things in it. Then I just decided to do the same structure as my PhD thesis,” and that really helped.

The actual formatting and everything was quite easy because I did it on Canva, that’s what Canva is built for. They have so many templates. So, then you just put in the stuff you want.

Read the PDF version of Caroline Aubry-Wake’s book: