Dr. Dan Gillis, Community-Engaged Professor

Dr. Dan Gillis is an Associate Professor & Statistician; a co-founder of Farm To Fork, GuelphHacks, and the ICON Transdisciplinary Classroom; a Director of PSEER; a lover of pie, pi, and scotch; and voracious traveler.

NGDG: You’re a guy who is the definition of a “doer”.

DG: You take that back.

NGDG: What powers your “doing all the things”?

DG: Hmmm, my inability to say no?

Mostly, however, is that I recognize that I am in a position of incredible privilege. I am fortunate to have an amazing job doing something I love and for which I am well compensated. I get to travel and see the world and call it work. And I get to work with a lot of really inspiring people — students, faculty, staff, and community partners — who make me think that despite our problems, things can only get better.

I’ve also been lucky to have been supported by so many different people throughout my university training. I get to do all of these things, and more, because other people believed in me, helped me out, and gave me a hand (or a kick in the butt) when I needed it. For whatever reason, I feel I owe it to them to continue the good by helping out wherever I can. It would be rude to just take their goodwill and keep it. I have to pass it on.

And because of the position I have, I’m afforded the ability to tap into so many resources both on- and off-campus. It would be wrong for me not to take advantage of this position.

NGDG: How should people think about how much they should/can do?

DG: I’m probably the worst person to ask about how much someone should/can do, because I have a terrible inability to say no to things. I get excited about projects and want to do them all. Fortunately things have worked out so far for me, but I also don’t sleep a lot — so that provides me a lot more time to get projects finished. I think the best advice I can give is to take on one project at a time to see how it feels — because we don’t need to do it all — we just need to do something. (I need to remind myself of that).

NGDG: You’re not a sit-around-and-chat-forever-about-a-problem kind of guy. How do you think about how to balance thinking and planning vs. doing good?

DG: I do find myself frustrated if all we do is talk about a problem. In some of the work I’ve seen, there is a lot of quantification of the problem, analyses about what caused the problem, and further analyses to see if those same causes were behind the same kind of problem in another community or population. While all of this is good, it doesn’t offer solutions. I want to see solutions, and I like the idea of diving into them (after understanding the problem of course), and figuring out quickly if the solution has merit. In the entrepreneurial world — this is learning how to fail quickly.

This isn’t to say planning isn’t essential. It is. Research and critical reflection are extremely important to ensure that whatever you are doing meets the needs of, and respects and honours the values, cultures, and traditions of those you are working with. It’s also important to make sure you fully understand the problem from all angles. This doesn’t mean that you become a domain expert — but that you have the expertise on the team; that you have all of the relevant voices so that transparent and well thought decisions can be made. But at some point you have to get down to business and do something. In my courses, I’d suggest that 50% of the time is planning, 50% of the time is doing. But we always have to remain open to updating our knowledge and our assumptions, and moving our solution into the direction that best supports those we are trying to help.

NGDG: How do you know if they’re in the right proportions? You teach computer science. Does the iterative nature of coding play into it?

DG: It does. As I mentioned previously, when you’re building solutions for social good, you have to keep the community you are working with in mind. All the best intentions are useless if the thing you are doing isn’t providing something that the partner can use. So keeping up to date with all of the partners becomes key. They need to see how things are going so they can correct course if need be. The thing to remember, at least for me, is that I’m not a domain expert in much of the do-good stuff that I get involved with. But I am surrounded by brighter minds who have lived a world of experience within those domains and who can help me ensure that whatever I’m up to, it’s moving in the right direction.

NGDG: Do you see yourself as a do-gooder? A leader? Do these labels matter?

DG: I don’t really call myself anything. To be honest, it still feels odd to me when people refer to me as a leader or an expert because most of the time I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. The impostor syndrome is strong.

If labels matter, I think it’s only to give other people perhaps someone to look at and say — hey, I want to do that, I want to be like them. For me, I always think about Terry Fox when I think of do-gooder or leader. Terry Fox gave his life to make a difference, and he must have been in constant pain. When I think of do-gooder, I think of him. He has set the bar in my mind.

NGDG: You’re a professor. Doing good seems to be integral to your teaching. What do the students take from learning by doing good? What do we get out of having them tackle big problems?

DG: I hope what they take away from my class is that they have the power to affect change. I hope they realize that computer science isn’t just about making video games or working for Google or Microsoft (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I want them to realize that computer science — or whatever they are studying — is more than just the stereotypical thing most people think of. The skills they learn in my class and in university in general give them power to do so much more than their discipline. I want them to know that they have that power, and that they can make a difference if they just get off their butts and do something.

I hope that they realize that their discipline isn’t the only discipline. I want them to recognize the power of other disciplines. That STEM and non-STEM are just different ways of knowing the world, and that they both offer amazing things. One is not better than the other, and to solve our most pressing issues, we need as many ways of evaluating and attacking them as possible.

I also hope they recognize the power of non-academic expertise. The expertise of lived experience, the expertise of traditional knowledge, the expertise of working in social good and being a change maker. Not everyone has a university degree, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t full of incredible knowledge and insight, nor does it mean that they should be ignored. To the contrary, these are the voices we should listen to most.

Finally, I want my students to leave my class and university as engaged citizens. Because if they don’t get involved…well, I don’t want to think about that.

NGDG: Can we really see all the benefits of this now? What do you think of as the downstream effects 10/15/20 years out?

DG: I think we are seeing the benefits of this already. More and more universities are being asked to respond to the needs of the community, and I think we are slowly doing that. The University of Guelph, however, has been at the front of this movement for a while. And I’m seeing more STEM students get involved in this manner.

More specifically, I’ve seen students whom one might not typically associate with social good getting involved. And getting involved a lot. So many of the students I work with offer their free time to help build solutions, even with full course loads. And I see the concern they have, demonstrated by the quality of their work and their desire to work with the community.

There have also been numerous awards won by the students because of their involvement. More than this, I see them continuing to work on projects after their classes have ended. It’s inspiring, and it keeps me going.

I hope the downstream effect is a collection of more engaged citizens — people who care about their neighbours, and equity, and social justice. And ultimately, I hope it means that they’ll be able to do a better job, be more innovative and proactive in protecting our environment, and the marginalized groups that up to now we’ve done a poor job of protecting.

NGDG: You’ve said meetings are better with beer. There’s definitely a “social” or “fun” aspect in all your projects. Why?

DG: Several reasons. First, it’s for my own sanity. I have a lot of projects on the go, so keeping things light — even with heavy topics like food insecurity, poverty, and mental health — is helpful for me. These projects can see sudden spurts of activity, then several months of frustratingly slow progress. Having a beer helps keep me grounded.

Second, it removes some of the “professor/student” barriers that might exist. I want the people who work with me (specifically students) to feel that they can offer suggestions, ideas, feedback, and criticisms without having to worry about the potential power differential. It’s more important that the projects are well thought out than anything. Having a beer at the meeting makes it a little less academic, a little more equalizing, and in my opinion more of a team experience — we’re all around the same table, fighting the same fight.

Finally, many of the weird and wonderful things I’ve found myself a part of have happened over a beer or a scotch. Some random idea was thrown out while sharing a beer with a friend, colleague, or student, and I thought — hells ya — we should do that thing.

NGDG: We’re in an age of “anti-expertise”. As a scientist by training, what do we do about it?

DG: We need more science training for everyone. And I don’t just mean STEM training. We need more physical science, social science, and liberal arts training. We need students to learn that all of these ways of knowing the world are equally important, and we need to provide students with a safe platform where they can work between the disciplines to explore the problems we face. Broad social challenges are not the domain of a single discipline, so we need to teach students how to work across those disciplines, to be open to new or different ways of thinking, and to be open to dialogue and communication.

We also need to introduce the idea of cognitive biases far sooner in school than we do. Students need to know that we all have built in biases — it doesn’t make us bad. But it is our responsibility to recognize them, and try to work around them so that we can seriously and critically evaluate the information presented to us. If we can’t do this, we won’t be able to make intelligent science-based decisions.

Further, we need to demand that our politicians dwell in the world of science policy, not opinion-based or fear-mongering policy. We see these latter things in the USA, with an administration that is very clearly fear-mongering and anti-science. But dumbing down the population isn’t going to help. Stifling creativity and the arts, cutting science funding, and ignoring broad scientific understandings — these are the path to the dark ages. We need to demand more of our politicians so that we can avoid this and build up our citizens.

And ultimately, I think academia needs to encourage and foster science communication — specifically encouraging and rewarding scientists for outreach. We need more Neil DeGrasse Tysons, and more ASAP Science type folks.

NGDG: How do you think about mobilizing information and data to make the world a better place?

DG: I think this is a great idea. There is power in data. Of course, we need to make sure there are literacies associated with this, otherwise we risk a situation where people are analyzing data in ways that are ineffective, inappropriate, or flat out wrong.

NGDG: Can you talk a bit about ICON? Do you see parallels to how we could better think cross-disciplinary to tackle real world issues?

DG: ICON, or Idea Congress, is a trans-disciplinary classroom that I co-created with Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs (Assistant Professor, Department of Integrative Biology) that is offered at the University of Guelph. The idea — borne from a conversation over a beer, naturally — was to bring students from different disciplines together and have them work to address broad social challenges. And I don’t mean that we wanted a simple interdisciplinary setup. We wanted to avoid the “mathematician, a statistician, and a different kind of mathematician” version of interdisciplinary. We wanted physicists working with philosophy and food science students. We wanted computer scientists working with theatre students and chemists. The greater the diversity, the better.

To do this, we had to address several issues. Specifically, we identified that we’d have to teach the students how to communicate more effectively, how to recognize their biases, and how to work in teams (among other things). We’d have to strengthen their critical evaluation and reflection skills, and help them build their problem identification skills. We wanted them to do this while also working with a community partner, so that they recognized that their work in class had a real effect in the community.

It’s not the typical classroom. So far we’ve had 200 students take the classroom from upwards of 30 different majors spanning 6 of the 7 colleges on campus. We’ve seen student groups receive external awards, and win funding and competitions for the work they’ve done. The results have been bigger and better than we ever could have imagined.

Based on what I’ve seen in the classroom, I think this needs to become required in all educational frameworks. Students need to be able to work with other disciplines so that they can see a problem using all the tools that we as humans have created. Conquering broad social challenges is going to take team work, innovation, and the courage to try (and potentially fail). We do ourselves a disservice by not creating a safe space for students to learn how to work in these types of settings.


The Now Go Do Good Five Questions

In addition to the questions we ask the people we interview which are specific to them and their work, we also ask everyone we talk with the same five questions as part of our conversation with them. We call them the Now Go Do Good Five.

NGDG: What good thing/act/idea are you most proud of?

DG: That’s a tough one. I think it’s a toss up between Farm To Fork and ICON.

Farm To Fork was a complete surprise, because I didn’t really have any idea that it was going to be as successful as it was, nor did I realize how important it would become to all aspects of my job. As a prof, my time is split between teaching, research, and service. Farm To Fork touches on every single one of those. Beyond that, I’ve been so incredibly proud and inspired by the students who have taken it on as their own. That some of them have been recognized for their contributions (with 40 Under 40 awards, Student Life Be The Change awards, and more) is not surprising to me, but I am bloody proud.

ICON has been a similar experience. Like Farm To Fork, it started over a beer with a friend and colleague. And much like Farm To Fork, it has been way more successful than I ever could have imagined. It too has become a significant component of all aspects of my job.

Working with Meal Exchange, a Canadian Not-For-Profit that runs campus food banks, to develop their Trick Or Treat app (to be piloted in Guelph this October, and launched nationally next year), working with students to co-found GuelphHacks, and working with the Inuit community of Rigolet to develop the eNuk health and environment monitoring app are also high on the list.

NGDG: What do most of us get wrong about doing good?

DG: People often assume that they don’t know enough, their voice isn’t big enough, or the thing they are thinking about doing isn’t going to have an impact. This is clearly wrong. Every single good thing starts with someone speaking up and doing something about it. And it doesn’t need be some massive fundraising event, or the start of a new not for profit — it could be as simple as sharing a smile or a coffee with a friend. Doing good doesn’t have to be complicated or left to the domain of BIG THINGS.

NGDG: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received or the most important lesson you’ve learned?

DG: Hmmm, tough question. It’s a toss up between “what’s the worst that could happen?”, “say yes to everything”, and “if it doesn’t scare you a little bit, it’s not worth doing”. All of these things come to mind more often than you might think. And they’ve helped me make many of my decisions throughout my life. So far, they haven’t failed me ;)

NGDG: What’s the most important thing people can do to start doing good now?

DG: Start. Just get off your butt and do something. Volunteer for an hour. Read to someone. Pick up trash in the neighbourhood. Anything. Every positive action makes a difference. And we need more of this now than ever before.

NGDG: Give us something to read.

DG: You’re probably going to expect something far more academic than what I have to offer, but…

Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. It’s all about imagination, and I think that is so important when it comes to addressing broad social challenges.

I’m also partial to Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Waterson (for similar reasons).

Oh The Places You’ll Go — by Dr. Seuss — because it’s sometimes the kick in the butt/shout out of support that I need when I have a million deadlines approaching.


Now Go Do Good is a project to inspire more people do more good by sharing conversations with people already making a difference — big or small — in their community or around the world. If you like what you read, share it. If you’ve got a story to tell, let us know.

Sean Yo builds products and communities, usually at the same time. Sean has worked in Tech since the 90s and is most interested in diversity, digital accessibility and raising generations of makers. He is the Co-Editor of Code Like A Girl, published on Medium.com.

Danny Williamson is interested in making the world a better place. He’s currently a director at a not-for-profit where he is focused on building better access to community. Danny’s philanthropic pursuits include tenures on several not-for-profit boards. He is a co-founder of Farm To Fork and Goodworking.

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