Keeping optimism through antagonism and aggression in health-care research 

Researchers share what motivates them to continue their work despite harsh scrutiny and misinformation 

By Jenna Braun Faculty of Health

The rapid spread of misinformation is rampant in the highly politicized area of health research. That misinformation opens the door to antagonism, intimidation and targeted attacks on researchers, educators and health-care workers within the field. 

On February 27, panelists Dr. Geoff Bardwell , assistant professor in the School of Public Health Sciences, Drs. Lisbeth Berbary and Kimberly Lopez , associate professors in the department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, and Dr. Nancy Waite , professor and associate director, clinical education in the School of Pharmacy, came together for the third discussion in the Antagonism and Intimidation in Academia Speaker Series: Antagonistic Responses to Health Research in the Academy. 

The four experts shared their own experiences facing antagonism solely due to the subject matter of their work, including substance use and related interventions, creative approaches to qualitative inquiry, aging well in long-term care and medication and vaccine management. 

When it came down to the questions about mitigating and managing antagonism and intimidation that results from their research findings, the panelists circled back to two main sources of hope. 

The world needs health research 

Waite is a pharmacist, an academic and a vaccine researcher, which she calls "the trifecta of the last three or four years" in making her a target for antagonistic threats. She helped lead the pharmacy portion of the Health Science Campus COVID vaccine clinic in 2021 and is passionate about innovating the evolving health-care landscape. 

"I know information that people need to know," she said. "Most people just want more information so that they can make the right decision." 

Waite said that although no conversation about vaccines is going to be risk-free, she feels that she brings value and hopes that she can help others through those discussions. 

"People have a right to their opinion, but they don’t have a right to interfere with others getting care. That’s really important to me and I will act in ways to make sure there is balance." 

Lopez described a "thrum of fear, discomfort and uncertainty" that stems from teaching about topics like race, climate change, employment, poverty and substance use. Her current teaching interests include race/ethnicity, gender and class, therapeutic recreation, difference, inclusion, advocacy and activism and aging well and leisure in later life. 

"As someone who sees teaching as an act of activism, I feel the work we do with students are opportunities to have difficult discussions," Lopez said. 

"I believe it sets a dangerous precedent if we choose not to use certain words or teach certain topics on the basis that it might offend some students," said Bardwell, who is a principal investigator for several projects, including a longitudinal study examining access to opioid agonist treatment in rural and Indigenous communities in British Columbia. 

"Since 2016, over 41,000 Canadians have died from opioid toxicity. There is a continued urgency for research on novel interventions. It’s a matter of life and death." 

Supported by a sense of community 

"It often feels that activist scholarship in teaching, calling for more gentle worlds, now makes us deeply vulnerable, putting us at greater risk for discipline, cancelling, grievance and violence," said Berbary, whose current work aims to offer funded labour to ongoing community-led justice projects. 

Her teaching interests include social theory practices, community transformation, structural change and liberatory leisure. 

"I find myself longing for radical community within the institution to hold us, community that’s committed to doing academia differently, towards saving ourselves and our worlds." 

Bardwell shared that he feels fortunate to be surrounded by several supportive colleagues that hold academic integrity to a high standard. 

"That collegial support and our commitment as scholars and educators to academic integrity makes carrying the weight seem less heavy," he said. 

In 2020, Lopez became a first-time mom, navigating maternity leave while continuing her research in race and long-term care. 

"I desperately wanted to talk and sift through my feelings. I felt antagonism was everywhere," she said. 

Like her colleagues, Lopez sought out the support of others, including faculty members, who she knew were feeling the same way in those intense moments. She suggested a strategy of organizing a coalition, sisterhood or mentorship circle. 

"My experience with rational support groups is that they are useful for countering hate," Lopez said. "After we leaned on each other, we felt we could begin to show up for others, like our students." 

Waite added, "It’s only through sharing those experiences, and learning from them, that we truly will move forward." 

She also offered a few pieces of advice that have helped her manage antagonism in a healthy way, such as using your right to say no and to end a conversation, and attending an event with someone who would have your back in a threatening situation. 

"Always consider and protect your own personal safety and security," Waite said. "I need to respect what my limits are in order to engage effectively in those conversations."