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Dr. Shelley Ball. Photo courtesy of Biosphere.

TEDxOttawa: Dr. Shelley Ball’s life mission is to connect people with nature

By Asim B. on September 19, 2017

These days, there are two annual TED conferences and numerous TEDx talks held throughout North America and beyond. The small “x” suffix represents global programs that are independently organized and intended to bring people together to share an experience similar to a TED event. TEDx events combine video and live speakers to spark deep discussions and connections, under the general guidance and format of the original TED program.

This year’s TEDxOttawa event will be held on Thursday September 28 at the Algonquin Commons Theatre. Ahead of the event, Apt613 was able to sit down with Dr. Shelley Ball, one of the guest speakers at the event, and used the opportunity to spark our own discussion into what inspires and motivates her research.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Dr. Shelley Ball. Photo courtesy of Biosphere.

Dr. Shelley Ball. Photo courtesy of Biosphere.

Apt613: Tell us a little bit about yourself?

Shelley: I grew up in Ottawa, in the Alta Vista area. I’m a biologist, with a PhD in evolutionary ecology and population genetics. I am currently a federal public servant and, in the background, I work on Biosphere; my environmental education organization.

You are also a certified career mentor and life coach. Briefly, what does that entail?

When I was teaching university… I would help students out, not just with what courses to choose, but help them out with their broader career paths and where they wanted to head. In terms of life coaching, I’ve had some challenges in my life. In the past eight years I lost both my parents to heartbreaking illnesses, went through a divorce and I’ve had a lot of struggles along the way – as well as a lot of amazing opportunities. So in a way, I feel like I’ve lived two lifetimes in one already. That aspect got me interested in helping people and life coaching kind of gradually gravitates towards that. It’s not a formal business, I just kind of do it as opportunity arises.

How did you come up with the idea for Biosphere?

That dream was decades in the making. I’ve been a nature lover from the age of two. I grew up collecting insects in my backyard in Ottawa and never grew out of that phase… fifty years later, I’m still doing it.

I studied science at Carleton University… and had two experiences that changed my life. There is a program called Ontario Universities Program in Field Biology, and during my third year at Carleton I saw an advertisement for a two-weeks fields study in ornithology up in Churchill, Manitoba for the summer… and the experience blew me away.. .being in the subarctic, being so far away, being so far in the field, experiencing new things. I was able to see what the environmental and cultural issues were firsthand.

The following year, I had another trip that changed my life… it was to Costa Rica. I had an adjunct prof that was working in Costa Rica for quite a while… in fact, he had built his own field station for Canadian students and researcher – because we didn’t have access to field stations through the American system. He was so enamoured with the biodiversity of Costa Rica and he wanted us all to see it. So, rather than collect his salary for the year, he actually donated it to the course and paid for us to spend a week studying insect biodiversity in Costa Rica. We just had to pay for our airfare there.

The following year, he offered a course and invited me and one other to be teaching assistants. So we ended up taking a bunch of undergrads to Costa Rica for a couple of weeks.

It was these experiences… that made me realise… I want to inspire other people by showing them stuff they wouldn’t normally see and make them think: “oh my god, look at this, this is incredible.” Through those experiences, the seed of Biosphere was born.

As a founding member of the expedition, can you tell us about the 2016 Homeward Bound Women In Science Leadership Expedition to Antarctica?

Homeward Bound is a private initiative based out of Australia created by Fabian Dattner, who’s a fairly prominent business woman in Australia… Fabian had this dream… what would happen if we could empower women in science to take a much stronger leadership role in science? And what impact would that have on the planet, and therefore, our future?

Photo: Biosphere Environmental Education (Facebook).

Photo: Biosphere Environmental Education (Facebook).

From there, Fabian put out a video on Facebook that I just kind of tripped over, that was a call for expressions of interest for women who may want to go on this expedition. The expedition was once in a lifetime for me. It was a trip to Antarctica, a place I never thought I’d get the chance to explore. The other women that were on this expedition with me were truly phenomenal, ranging in age from early twenties to their sixties. They brought a phenomenal range of experience and wisdom with them.

What was the motivation behind the Youth Environmental Ambassadors Program?

My personal mission in life is connecting people to nature. Hopefully inspiring them to love it, to care about it and to do something to protect it. I really feel like we’re at a crunch point in terms of environmental issues and conservation issues… so I wanted to do something for young people by showing them amazing thing they would never see…

“My personal mission in life is connecting people to nature. Hopefully inspiring them to love it, to care about it and to do something to protect it.”

Photo: Biosphere Environmental Education (Facebook).

Photo: Biosphere Environmental Education (Facebook).

You know, it’s not my generation that’s going to change things, it’s the upcoming generation. I want to help young people become change makers so that they can create a better future for our planet. So through the program, we will cover leadership… and communication skills, because getting the word out is key. We will also teach them National Geographic style photography, environmental and nature photojournalism. We will teach them how to shoot, edit, and produce their own videos. The whole idea is to turn them into visual storytellers about the environment and let them tell their own stories.

How did you become involved with TEDxOttawa?

I have been a huge fan of TED for years and years… I just find it so fascinating the ideas that people present and how they present them. It’s also a dream of mine to participate at a TED event.

So I just happened to be looking online wondering if there was something coming up in Ottawa and found the TEDx event at Algonquin College. I decided to be brave and submit an application… was offered an audition and then got accepted to be one of the six speakers.

Youth Environmental Ambassadors Program. from Shelley Ball on Vimeo.

What do you plan on discussing during the event?

Well, I went from this kid who didn’t think they would achieve anything to doing pretty incredible things that I’m really thankful for – so I’d really like to help people figure out what are their dreams, what do they want to do with their life, what makes them tick, what are their passions and how can they achieve those in their life.

Part of what I want to do, based on my own personal journey… from childhood right up to now… is to show that not only is struggle a good thing, but I think it’s necessary. If we are not discouraged and keep trying, and not give up, we can actually achieve incredible things. Digging deep and pushing through adversity can provide people an opportunity to go from ordinary to extraordinary.

You know, I started life as a kid with an undiagnosed massive learning disability who never thought she would accomplish anything and here I am now.

This has been a pleasure Shelley. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Thank you, the pleasure was all mine.


TEDxOttawa 2017 will take place on Thursday September 28 at Algonquin College. Tickets cost $25–100 online. Update: The event has sold out.


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