Exploring a delicate food web
Heidi Swanson embraced extreme isolation and braved hungry bears in her quest for a greater understanding of Canada's northern ecosystem.
Since 2006, the University of New Brunswick Saint John Biology PhD student has spent several summers living and working 800 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife along the coast of the Arctic Ocean.
From hauling a small boat on a wagon through the northern wilderness to reach remote lakes to depending on helicopters and seaplanes for vital supplies and links to the world, Swanson has experienced much through her field research.
She even had to set up an electric fence and use an air horn to keep over-curious bears away from her camp. Despite the hardships, it's clear the North has left an impression on her.
“The landscape is beautiful,” she says. “Whatever I do after I'm done my PhD, I'd like to continue working and studying in the North.”
A chance encounter
Swanson's research focuses on the impact sea-run Arctic char have on the food web and pollution in coastal Arctic lakes. It will help the world understand the impact of pollution and climate change on Canada's North.
She became interested in studying the impact of Arctic char on the food web while conducting environmental studies for a potential mine in northern Canada. While waiting for a helicopter, she saw a migration of Arctic char swimming up a small stream.
She watched as several dozen of the bright orange fish, sometimes with half their backs out of the water, powered upstream against rapids, rocks and bears fishing for them.
“It was an amazing thing to witness first-hand."
Thinking about research that had just been released about the effects of ocean pollution on pacific salmon and how those salmon were bringing the pollution into fresh water ecosystems when they migrated, Swanson realized that no one had done a similar study on Arctic char.
Swanson, a native of Saskatoon, chose to pursue her PhD at UNB. She was drawn to the university because of the work of Dr. Karen Kidd, the Canada Research Chair in chemical contamination of foods webs, which was precisely what she wanted to study and research with Arctic char.
“She was very open to having me come in with my own project and my own idea and just letting me try to fund it myself,” Swanson says.
Swanson's research in Canada's North garnered her a Garfield Weston Award by the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies in the summer. She was one of seven researchers chosen across the country for the award, which is sponsored by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation.
The Weston award is given to students who demonstrate academic excellence and strong leadership. It comes with $40,000 over two years, which Swanson is using to fund her research.
“It's been a really amazing, inspirational and unique experience for me. I'm really grateful I made the choice to come to UNB and pursue this research the way I did.”