Encyclopedia of Puget Sound

Perception is the key to a better future, says Canadian astronaut

Dr. Roberta Bondar opens the three-day Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C., by challenging people to see things in different ways.

As ecosystems change — from small areas close to home to vast regions across the globe — people need to adjust their perspectives to help the planet survive, according to Canada’s first female astronaut, Dr. Roberta Bondar.

Bondar, a neurologist, opened the three-day Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday morning by challenging people to look at things in different ways. Embracing new perspectives, she said, is one of the greatest things she learned from going into space, where things that were right side up become upside down in a most disorienting way.

More than 1,100 people have come together this week to intensify the focus on preserving and restoring the Salish Sea — a shared waterway that includes Puget Sound in the U.S., the Strait of Georgia in Canada and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the border between the two countries.

During the 12th biennial conference addressing the Salish Sea ecosystem, more than 450 researchers and policymakers are presenting individual talks, not including about 150 poster presentations. This year’s theme is “Strengthening Connections in Changing Times,” stressing the need for cross-border collaboration in solving ecological problems in the Salish Sea.

“I love the title,” Bondar said. “It is what we should be doing every day. The idea of strengthening our connections is not just about … connecting across borders but also strengthening our educational system.”

Bondar was chosen as the opening speaker at the conference because of her passionate views regarding life on Earth after traveling into space. She served on the space shuttle Discovery mission in 1992 and has long been recognized for her contributions to space medicine — including connections between astronauts recovering from microgravity in space and neurological problems suffered by patients on the ground.

Bondar said from the age of 10 years old she wanted to go into space. She was inspired by Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” which helped to spawn the modern environmental movement. “From a very young age, I had wanted to see the world differently.”

In space, astronauts become disoriented by weightlessness, she explained, and this can even cause sickness in some people, but the brain eventually adjusts to a new alignment like nothing experienced on the ground. That ability to adjust perception provides a lesson for everyone.

As a neurologist, Bondar had studied human perception. But after returning from space, she wanted to experience and share things in a new way. She traveled across Canada, taking pictures of landscapes in the country’s amazing national parks. With words and photos, she has since published four books about connections between humans and nature.

While it is important to live in the present, she said, the world is changing. Helping to shape that change in a positive way is the biggest challenge facing the human race. People are often afraid to change because they don’t know how they will get to where they want to go.

The answer, she said, is to observe things realistically and find new paths to the future, never abandoning a sense of optimism. Engaging young people in science and how to protect the natural world is essential.

Bondar served as chairwoman of the Working Group on Environmental Education for the Province of Ontario, which offered 32 recommendations to strengthen environmental education in elementary and secondary schools. All 32 were implemented by the Minster of Education.

“We can’t just develop policies behind closed doors, she said. “We have to go out and engage. It is up to us to decide if this is a sunset or a sunrise,” she noted, showing a picture of a blazing sun resting on the horizon.

“This is the time of our lives when we should be bonding together and protecting not just the Salish Sea but the areas around it,” she said. “A friend taught me that the glass should always be two-thirds full — even if there is only one drop left in it.”

Video shown during keynote

About the Author: 
Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.