Kurtis Baute
Kurtis Baute

“The Power of Plant Farts” might sound less than scholarly. But for this graduate student, that 10-minute talk proved to be a way to share a research project with a wider audience – even all the way to Europe next spring.

Back in high school, Kurtis Baute’s science teacher had him run laps at the beginning of class to burn off energy. Today Baute is studying ways to burn green energy with his master’s project at U of G’s Ridgetown Campus.

Now, years after his boyhood passion for science was nearly doused by that early teacher, he hopes to spark wider interest in the field as a science communicator.

Science is about storytelling, says Baute, and he’s doing that in several ways.

This year, he competed in a “science slam” contest in Toronto in mid-October. Along with other contestants from across North America, he discussed his research during that 10-minute power talk.

He had qualified for the contest’s Toronto round by creating a three-minute music video about biogas. In the field and in the lab, he filmed himself singing, dancing and playing air guitar for a song he wrote about using plant biomass to generate renewable electricity.

It’s probably the only music video featuring Ridgetown’s biogas digester, housed in a research facility called the Centre for Agricultural Renewable Energy and Sustainability (CARES).

It’s certainly the first time Baute has played air guitar using a stalk of phragmites, an invasive tall grass with “plant fart” potential.

“Science needs to be fun, that’s the idea,” he says. “I tried to make the talk as fun and funny as possible. I did get a lot of laughs.

You can see the video on his blog called The Scope of Science (www.scopeofscience.com). He posts articles a couple of times a month. In a recent posting called “Stop Wasting Science,” he wrote about the growth of open access journals and called for more access to “open data.”

Open access is the topic of a conference he planned to attend this month in Washington, D.C., on a scholarship from the Canadian Association of Research Libraries.

“It’s all about science communications. I mostly talk about how we communicate science and how to make it more accessible,” says Baute.

Scientists need to become better storytellers, he says. Don’t drone on about an insect’s body parts, as important as they may be. Why not weave a story about how, say, leafcutter ants use those parts to harvest and cultivate fungus gardens? “That’s cool.”

Following his science slam talk, he was named as one of five finalists from Canada and the United States who will take part in a science communication workshop in Europe next spring. There he will also make contact with a European research laboratory of his choosing to discuss possible collaboration.

The EURAXESS Science Slam is a project of the European Commission intended to connect researchers worldwide.

At Ridgetown, Baute studies renewable energy for his master’s degree with Prof. Brandon Gilroyed, School of Environmental Sciences.

He’s comparing production and energy performance of phragmites and two other grasses — miscanthus and switchgrass — already grown for biomass.

Says Gilroyed, “There’s a big need for renewable energy and ways to better manage a lot of agricultural waste and residues.”

Biogas made from plant material offers a renewable way to generate electricity. Unlike solar power available only during the day or wind power made only intermittently, biogas uses a reliable field crop grown and harvested by farmers.

Grasses fed into a digester such as the CARES research facility installed in 2012 are broken down by microbes to yield methane. That gas is then used to generate electricity.

Burning methane produces carbon dioxide. That’s a greenhouse gas as well, but one that is far less potent than methane released directly to the atmosphere as plant material breaks down naturally, says Baute.

So far, only a few dozen digesters are working in Ontario, far fewer than the thousands based in Europe. Biogas still makes up a tiny proportion of global energy use.

There’s another reason to use phragmites to make biogas, says Baute. As an invasive species, this tall grass threatens wetland biodiversity in Ontario and is costly to remove from ditches and drains.

Baute developed a love of science while growing up on the family farm near Chatham, Ont. He built model rockets with his mom and dad, pulled apart electronics and asked all kinds of questions.

His parents, Dave and Brenda, have run Maizex Seeds Inc. for 30 years. Operating on almost 900 hectares around the original farmstead begun by Dave’s father, the company produces seed corn for sale to farmers across the country.

The company has supported research and teaching facilities at Ridgetown Campus. This year, Maizex provided funding toward a new sustainable crop research and innovation centre; U of G will recognize their support this semester on the BetterPlanet donor wall in Rozanski Hall.

Both his parents began studies at U of G but moved to southwestern Ontario before finishing their degrees. Earlier, Dave completed an agriculture diploma at Ridgetown.

Referring to Kurtis, Dave says, “He is one of very few individuals curious enough about science and has a friendly, fun method of communicating. He delivers a relatively simple message in a way that appeals and that people can relate to.”

Only a few years ago, Kurtis might have pursued anything but science.

His last science course at high school was Grade 10 physics. Turned off by what he saw as just so many dry facts – not to mention all those energy-sapping laps — he decided to pursue storytelling in other directions.

Having made a number of short films, he started at Ryerson University in new media arts. He switched to Wilfrid Laurier University for communication studies.

It was there that he read Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. In a blog posting, he wrote, “I realized that science was a way of thinking, a beautifully simple method for developing an understanding of how the world works.”

He took one biology course and then another, and ended up with a BA in biology and a minor in communication studies. He was especially fascinated by plants. “We can’t live without them.” From food to building materials to forms of energy, he says, “everything comes from plants. They’re so cool.”

Baute enjoys research but doesn’t see himself working in a lab full-time after graduation. “I’m hoping to do science communication as a career,” he says. “To be a modern-day remix of Bill Nye and Carl Sagan: that’s my dream.”

His supervisor says it’s important for scientists to share research, even in unorthodox ways. A three-minute music video can hardly convey all of the nuances of a project, says Gilroyed, but “people who want to know more will dig in more.”

He adds that “taxpayers give money to fund public science, and I think we have to show what we’re up to with that money.”