Title: Chemical Carcinogens in the Athabasca River: The Alberta Oil Sands and Increasing Cancer Rates

Client: University of Dundee, Masters thesis
Date: August 2014
Tools: Maya Autodesk, After Effects CC, Audition CC, Photoshop CC
Format: Animation, project stills and pamphlet, research booklet
Audience: The general public, politicians, and researchers; intended to raise awareness and interest in the field.   

There is a lot of concern that the increased cancer rates around the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta (where I grew up) are a result of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). Recent scholarship details increasing levels of PAHs in the Athabasca River and its tributaries. The link between PAH and cancers is widely established. This brief animation presents these issues to the public, depicting the complex events underlying the pathophysiology specific to the types of cancers associated with increased PAHs. 

How do I represent complex and dry scientific information while also communicating the urgency of the situation? How to do that without alienating individuals without a scientific background, while at the same time not simplifying it to a degree at which the information I was initially trying to convey gets lost?

Research was conducted over a one-month period and consisted of identifying the fundamental science behind naturally occurring levels of carcinogens as well as an investigation of oil and bitumen extraction and how contaminants most commonly enter the human body. 


Scientific learning tools, such as 3D animation, can offer an alternative method through which scientists and activists can communicate the key scientific concepts at the centre of this difficult and urgent issue. This project, unlike many others I’ve worked on, was exciting in that I was able to obtain feedback from the individuals for whom the animation was intended. It gave me a much greater insight into how to translate or represent information. My project provided support for the use of new technologies, specifically computer animation, for instruction and public engagement. 

Sample Figure. Good vs. Poor Biology Responses
These two graphs show a possible bias for individuals who described themselves to have very poor or poor understanding of cell biology. Overall, this could suggest that the information presented was not at an appropriate level for individuals unframiliar with the common language of cells. Individuals who had at least a good understanding of biology had an overall more positive experience viewing the animation.