Two win media award

January 23, 2003, vol. 26, no. 2
By Marianne Meadahl

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Two well-known SFU faculty members with solid credentials in academia are being honoured for the strength of their reputations in the public domain.

Gloria Gutman, director of SFU's gerontology research centre, and Barry Beyerstein, an associate professor of psychology, are recipients of the annual president's award for service in media and public relations.

Both have longstanding careers tackling issues of social relevance and have solid records as community speakers and media sources.

Gutman arrived at SFU in 1980 and is known for putting SFU on the map of Canadian academic gerontology. The gerontology research centre is widely recognized in Canada and internationally as one of the country's leading research institutions, while the master's program she spearheaded (the only program west of Quebec) has drawn similar recognition.

Gutman has been just as active building a profile as one of the nation's best known and most sought after experts on seniors' issues. She has given more than 300 media interviews. “When something happens that effects the aging population in this country, we hear about it quickly, and then the phone starts ringing,” says Gutman. “It's an evolving field and one that is affecting more and more people worldwide.”

Gutman's visibility rose dramatically with her election in 2001 as president of the International Association of Gerontology. The role has led to extensive world travel and opportunities to speak on issues related to global aging - increasingly through the international media.

“It's given me a great opportunity to bring attention to Canadian expertise on aging,” says Gutman, who this year will attend major events in Argentina, Spain, South Africa, Chile and Japan.

 “In many ways the issues associated with aging and the solutions are the same. It's that twist to make the answers culturally sensitive, and to be able to contextualize them to the media that is challenging.”

 The other common factor is that the aging population is growing. In China, for example, there are more than 100 million people over 60. “That's difficult to even contemplate,” says Gutman.

Back home, Gutman is also keeping an eye on recent changes to health care initiated by the B.C. Liberal government, and the potential effects of the Romanow report on national policy.

A researcher at heart, Gutman says her work with the media goes with the job.

“It's important that we have people in the academic community who can translate what is being discovered as well as what is needed, because there can be a lot of misperception,” says Gutman.

Beyerstein, a charter student of SFU, is a tireless commentator on a wide range of social issues, tackling everything from hardline subjects such as drug or alcohol addiction, and depression to a wide gamut of notions and social beliefs linked to parapsychology. He studies the brain and is fascinated by the psychology of human error.

A skeptic at heart as well as by trade, his goal is to clear the unscientific air by spreading the facts.

His track record of media interviews - more than 800 - shows he seldom turns down the chance. His penchant for criticizing what many might rather believe, from the benefits of alternative medicine to the presence of UFOs, has made him an internationally sought expert.

“It's tough sometimes to be the skunk at the garden party,” says Beyerstein, who is also chair of the B.C. Skeptics and member of the international committee for the scientific investigation of claims of the paranormal (CSICOP).

Its mandate is to improve the low level of public awareness of scientific explanations for everything from crop circles to cults.

“My message is often not as comforting as the message being criticized. But when dubious notions are put forward as truth, all I ask for is a fair shake in getting out the scientific facts. My goal is to provide balance.”

His input is far-reaching. The BBC flew Beyerstein to London to examine why people think they see the Loch Ness monster.

The Oprah Winfrey show pitted him against Raymond Moody to dispute the well-known author's book on near-death experiences. His insights have been shared on the Discovery channel, CBC television, the New York Times and on the English speaking Vatican radio.

“I love the fact that this is part of my job,” says Beyerstein, whose expertise frequently lands him in the courtroom as an expert witness.

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