Huner heads ‘back to future’ to lead Biotron

Examining a neat row of pots in a climate-controlled biome, Biology professor Norm Huner describes how this space will become temporary home to eight tree species that would ordinarily populate a boreal forest. They will be subject to environmental conditions that mirror what they would face outdoors – with two key differences.

The first: This micro-environment and five adjacent ones will be subject to slightly higher temperatures and carbon dioxide levels, representing best-case and worst-case global climate forecasts over the next 50 years.

Second, the process will be accelerated, so that entire seasons and decades can be modelled in a fraction of real time, like a video played in fast-forward.

Led by Biology professor Danielle Way, in collaboration with Huner, the goal of the research is to discover which trees will be most affected by climate change and how.

It’s the kind of research, Huner said, that can be done nowhere else but in an environment like the Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre.

“That’s the role of the Biotron – find out cause and effect in an ecosystem,” Huner said. “Knowledge coming out of these collaborations helps inform policy and industry considerations. Decisions are being made on science data our researchers and students provide.”

Recently, Huner, the founding father of Western’s Biotron, was tapped to lead the climate-change research centre – again – two decades after he first sowed the seeds for the cutting-edge facility. Resettling into the role, he is energized by the work the decade-year-old centre has done and by its potential to expand.

“For me, it’s sort of back to the future,” Huner said. “What’s been interesting is the way it has evolved.”

Ecosystem research continues to be the centre’s sweet spot, however today the facility is also home to a materials-science node where Engineering, Physics and Chemistry researchers study the effect of climate change on metals and coatings. A third node uses the facilities to help understand how biomaterials respond under different conditions.

The strength of the Biotron has always been the facility plus the quality of its researchers, Huner said. Collaborations at the current facility take place between colleagues from across campus and around the world.

In the past year, 45 Western faculty members and 190 trainees have conducted research at the Biotron on crops, forestry, insects, soils, and algae, along with providing analytical services to industry, education and governments. And while the work has generated impact around the world, the centre itself is poorly known outside its niche.

Huner aims to change that.

“Part of the reason I wanted to take this job on was because the Biotron has been flying under the radar,” he said. “The Biotron hasn’t disappeared – it’s still here and functioning and doing more than we ever expected it to.”

In 2008, the $28.6-million facility opened as the biggest single project the university had undertaken. With funding tied mostly to facilities rather than office or support staff – and a fee-for-service model that meant researchers and corporate partners would cover the cost of using the facility – the Biotron faced some early, difficult bumps.

But Huner said the funding model remains sound today, as stronger collaborations and partnerships, including more grant-attracting research with different government agencies and ministries, are helping move it to the next level.

In order to grow the profile, Huner and his team look to lean on everything from philanthropic opportunities to public outreach, including more lectures and tours to expand understanding of the cutting-edge work taking place, as well as its relevance.

It’s fair to say the Biotron was ahead of its time a decade ago, Huner said. The issue of climate change is far more serious ever was 10 years ago. Western has allowed the Biotron to evolve and grow.