The Inspiration of Science

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My name is Dani Nowosad and I’m wrapping up my second summer season at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre as a Seasonal Research Technician. I was born and raised in Winnipeg and am taking an honours degree in Physical Geography at the University of Winnipeg. I enjoy writing, photography, painting, playing badminton and softball, and horseback riding. I am a citizen of the Métis Nation, although before recently, I wasn’t quite sure what that meant.

Before I got this job in the spring of 2017, I was ready to quit my university degree. I was having trouble finding any leads for a student job in science and I began believing that a science degree wasn’t suiting me. I was struggling with my courses because I didn’t see them as meaningful or useful to my life, and I was working too many hours between late-night bartending and two other jobs to put in the amount of time and energy required to succeed at school. Through high school, I took just the minimum amount of science courses required to graduate, and I felt that this set me at a disadvantage for courses I was struggling with in my university degree. I questioned why I decided to study science at all - I had started university taking an arts degree, and certainly arts courses come more naturally to me.

After a particularly rough semester, I heard whispers of a job in Churchill for which there was no posting (thanks, Evan Roberts!). All I knew about Churchill was that there were Polar Bears, and even that seemed far-fetched to me. Curious, I contacted Evan and he shared with me that some of the professors in my department had substantial experience with this place called the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Specifically, a professor I had taken one course from was the Vice-Chair of the Board of the Study Centre. He was very excited to hear that I was interested in hearing more about this position (thanks Dr Chris Storie, your Muck Boots recommendation is to this day greatly appreciated). In addition to Chris, another professor I had for two courses had also been to the Study Centre (thanks Dr Nora Casson!). Between the two of them, Dr Storie and Dr Casson essentially pestered Dr LeeAnn Fishback – at my request, sorry LeeAnn! - who is now my boss and honours supervisor. I ended up coming to Churchill just a few weeks later.

LeeAnn and my coworkers in the science department at CNSC could not have been more helpful and understanding as I stumbled up what I felt was the nearly vertical learning curve. I learned all about the contract research that we keep up with as Research Techs – before the spring of 2017, I hadn’t even written in a field notebook! I learned about polar bear and firearm safety and the groundwork of being a Polar Bear Guard. I was part of the field staff for six Earth Watch teams, which are citizen science teams, where I was one of the points of reference for local critters, plants, and culture.

I was presented with the surreal opportunity by LeeAnn and Nora to do a small pilot project that used mesocosms to investigate the role of sediment in nutrient uptake of tundra pond sediments that was being funded by the Northern Scientific Training Program (trust me, I had never heard these words strung together in this particular way before and really had no clue what I was getting into!). Again, I stumbled through the vertical learning curve and came out of it knowing I was extremely lucky to be given such an opportunity.

I learned the logistics of field work and helped provide equipment and lab space to incoming researchers. I got to interact with researchers studying a wide array of sub-arctic subjects and play witness to the passion and tireless efforts of these scientists as they did their field and lab work. Apparently, science wasn’t such an elitist enigma as I had once thought! Here were researchers in the tops of their fields sitting at my lunch table, chatting about their work and playing board games with me in the evenings. Maybe studying science wasn’t such a bad idea as I had thought before I began this job.

Beyond work, I was able to participate in town activities such as Aboriginal Day, Canada Day, and trivia nights. I learned more about how CNSC is located on Treaty 5 territory, which is the home of the Inuit, Dene, Cree, and homeland of the Métis Nation. I realized how little I knew and understood about the cultures of these Aboriginal peoples and was excited to learn more. I felt a connection to my ancestors that had been born at York Factory and traded furs in Churchill in the 18th century. Needless to say, I spent 3.5 months working at CNSC with starry eyes! By September 2017, I knew that I had to try to come back. When I asked LeeAnn, she was open to the possibility of returning for the 2018 summer season. By the end of the summer, I was told that the mesocosm project we had piloted had the potential to be an honours thesis, and that Nora and LeeAnn could supervise me. With one season of being a Research Technician behind me, I felt confident that I was capable of taking on an honours thesis in science.

I spent the academic year after leaving Churchill applying myself as I never had to my studies. I cut the number of jobs I had down to one and felt engaged and happy at my university and was truly interested in my course work. My marks increased by a full letter grade. Nora hired me on as a Research Assistant in December and we began sorting out how we were going to go about my honours thesis with LeeAnn. This summer 2018 season has been a unique combination of working for LeeAnn as a Research Technician at CNSC and conducting my honours thesis field work with the help of NSERC, the Northern Research Fund, Nora, my co-workers in the science department, and several EarthWatch teams. I found myself in slightly more of a leadership role and am happy to report that I’m very comfortable and enjoying the position very much.

Now that my second season at CNSC is almost finished, I’ve been reflecting on the similarities and differences between this year and last and I appreciate how far I have come. I feel that my thesis project is coming along nicely and I’m excited to share the results next spring. Thanks to all of the support I’ve had from my supervisors, co-workers, friends and family, I felt confident enough to start inquiring around about a masters by research degree in the Antarctic. The supervisor I’ve been in contact with has told me that he has a project in mind for me based on the polar skills I’ve learned since I started at the CNSC. Interestingly, thanks to the connections I’ve made working at CNSC and living in Churchill, I have been invited to lead a four-month long camera trap survey project in Malawi, Africa. And, if none of these things come to fruition, I will definitely be back at CNSC (if LeeAnn will have me back!!).

Check out the time lapse video to see my project in action!