When they heard about an opportunity to spend a week in Algonquin Park learning and practising naturalist skills, Western students Lida Benam and Devanshi Parmar eagerly applied and were thrilled to be accepted.
Parmar, a fourth-year honours biology student, and Benam, a 2022 honours biology graduate, were two of 14 participants from Western and the University of Toronto who took part in the debut year of the Field Research in Ecology and Evolution Diversified (FREED) excursion Aug. 20 to 27.
FREED is offered specifically to undergraduates of the two universities who identify as Indigenous, Black or racialized.
Hosted at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station, the program was created by experts and graduate researchers in the field who hope to increase diversity in their profession by providing an immersive field research experience for students facing barriers to inclusion.
Benam and Parmar were able to connect with peers in the program and build networks with Indigenous, Black or racialized workshop leaders and speakers who led sessions on such skills as tree and bird identification, conducting turtle surveys and science communication. They also had a chance to canoe and camp.
“I’ve always loved and been interested in nature and how we fit in it,” said Parmar, noting the week had a “very fun-packed schedule.” She particularly enjoyed learning traditional techniques of scientific illustration using graphite and watercolour.
Benam said she’d wanted to take a field-research course while at Western but up until now, COVID had gotten in the way.
“I really like animals and I think they’re an important part of our environment and the evolution as well,” said Benam, whose favourite moment of the week was catching a turtle while canoeing.
There is no charge for students participating in FREED; in fact they receive a small stipend, funded by Western and other organizations, to help offset money they might otherwise have earned from a summer job.
Asked about their most memorable experiences, Benam and Parmar agreed it was difficult to pick out just one. They both enjoyed the presenters, workshops and hands-on experiences and were happy to have made new friends.
“I would highly recommend the program to other students,” said Benam.
“It’s a great chance to get a sense of what it’s like to do field research,” added Parmar.
Plans are in the works to run FREED next year. Interested students can contact Aranya Iyer, Masters student in the Faculty of Social Science and FREED co-founder, at email@example.com.