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Life on Earth from an astronaut's perspective: Roberta Bondar Speaks at Ontario Nature youth summit

Tandem: The New Mainstream Lifestyle Weekend Paper Article

June 13, 2010

By Danela Fisher

A group of talented young naturalists learned the importance of biodiversity at a youth summit featuring keynote speaker, Dr. Roberta Bondar, iconic Canadian astronaut, neurologist and photographer.

The scientific triple threat spoke to a group of teens, aged 14 to 17, who had come from all over the province to attend the Youth Summit for Biodiversity hosted by Ontario Nature at Camp Cedar Glen.

Learning about the health of the planet and how to protect it fits with 2010 being the International Year of Biodiversity, as declared by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

Dr. Bondar, who has worked with UNEP in the past, encouraged the budding naturalists to constantly explore and to try new things, policies she herself has followed since an early age.

"Since I was a kid I had wanted to go into space," she said in an interview with Corriere Canadese/Tandem. "I had a very, very open mind as to what I was going to see and wanted it to be a new palette. I wanted it to be a whole new life experience for myself."

The astronaut stared in the sciences at an early age, placing first in the biology category of a science fair for the city of Sault Ste. Marie when she was in Grade 12.

She then went on to earn degrees in zoology and agriculture as well as a Master of Science, a Doctor of philosophy, and a medical degree specializing in neurology.

It was in 1992 that Dr. Bondar explored a new frontier, going into orbit and becoming both the first neurologist and the first Canadian woman to go into space.

She described her impression of looking back at Earth from space: "The main thing was looking away from earth and seeing most of the predominant part of the field is the light-sucking black of the universe, with the starts that don't twinkle because we're above the main part of the atmosphere. It's very frightening to look over the edge of a cliff and not see the bottom. That's what it's like looking into space. So imagine looking at the planet and it's not hard to think about how beautiful it is."

Going into space change her worldview, both literally and symbolically.

"It changed my view of humanity - there's nothing else around us," she said. "There is nothing else. This is what we have, and so it makes me far less tolerant and despairing of war and despairing of man."

As a pioneer in space medicine, photography and the environment; she is now one of Canada's most famous explorers.

She spoke to the youths gathered at the camp in Schomberg, Ont. about the importance of being leaders, and how both older and younger generations were responsible for the planet.

"The one thing that I really can't stand people saying all the time is, 'It's the older generation that that's made all the mistakes. It's up to the youth to correct it," she said, "We're all in this together. I think the energy and the open-mindedness of youth it is a huge strength for society in general. I think that would be the first thing. And the second thing is that the youth really not just inherit the Earth, they inherit all this knowledge that we've accumulated so far."

Part of Dr. Bondar's knowledge is her extensive photo collection. Always the avid photographer, she has taken many photographs both in space and on earth, including a unique picture of a solid Ward Hunt Ice Shelf. The Ice Shelf, now cracked into large pieces due to warmer waters in the Atlantic Ocean, has suffered a loss of biodiversity.

Using photography to learn about science is a passion she is passing onto others. Her new organization the Roberta Bondar Foundation encourages individuals to learn about the environment through art.

"Part of the Foundation's mandate is to reach out and talk about environmental issues," she said. "Our first theme is biodiversity and distinction. So this [the Youth Summit] fits very nicely into it."

Also a presenter at the Summit was youth leadership expert Matt Tod.

Tod is the director of youth programs at the Institute of Heath and Human Potential, a research organization using Emotional Intelligence (EI) to improve performance and leadership.

His message for the Summit was youths can be leaders and engage in world issues, like biodiversity and protecting the environment through being aware of themselves and how they can make change.

"When you have awareness, awareness creates a choice and when you have choices, that's when you first create change," he said.

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