Even a weekend full of rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of Western students exploring field research for the first time at Bronte Creek Provincial Park this summer.
The second trip organized through the Field Research in Ecology and Evolution Diversified (FREED) program introduced 11 participants to the basics of field work at the end of June. The program began in 2022.
“I got to meet a lot of people who had a shared interest in biology and were also from a racialized background,” said Jackie Lac, a fourth-year biology student who just completed a year-long science internship between the third and fourth year of their undergraduate degree.
“We learned how to identify birds by different calls, identify trees by parts of the leaves or branch patterns and spent some time on science communication as well. It’s so interesting to see experts who know, just from a call, what bird you’re hearing. That was really fun.”
Like many others on the weekend trip, Lac had never been camping before taking part in FREED.
Aranya Iyer, MSc‘22, who co-founded FREED along with friend Mariel Terebiznik, said building scientific skills in real-life settings is crucial for students from diverse backgrounds.
“The whole experience of staying overnight – that mimicry of field work – is so important because for most students, it’s the very first integrated experience with nature,” Iyer said.
“It brings in a new element that you don’t get on a normal, everyday basis and in a typical course.”
Bringing diversity to field work
Iyer was able to take advantage of field work opportunities thanks to support from family. Clearly, it paid off: she now works for World Wildlife Canada, a non-profit organization focused on conservation. She understands how vital those skills are to pursue careers in environmental or sustainability science.
“We were so lucky that our families were able to support us for summers to either get paid nothing or very little. Mariel and I have so many privileges that enabled us to do this, so we wanted to think more deeply about how to remove those barriers for others,” she said.
They want to bring the experience to a wider group of students who may not otherwise have the chance to hone their scientific skills in the field.
“That diversity wasn’t reflected in the demographics at the field station and it certainly wasn’t reflected higher up the academic ladder,” Iyer said.
Those realities inspired FREED, a program that allows Black, Indigenous and other racialized undergraduate students to take part in field work while receiving a small stipend for any lost worktime. Multiple Western faculties, including science and social science, provided financial support for the program to ensure it could continue this year.
Lac said the opportunity helped expose new professional paths.
“I’ve always loved biology but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make a career out of it. Just talking to some of the people on the trip, I am more interested,” Lac said.
Participants gain scientific skills
Students learn a wide range of field research skills through FREED, from identifying plant and animal species to tracking and trapping wildlife.
“We had a wonderful group. I really enjoyed seeing how engaged the students were, how quickly they seemed to form friendships, and how adaptive they were during some crazy weather when we had to change some of the plans,” said Lauren Witterick, a Western PhD candidate in biology who taught one of the lessons at Bronte Creek Provincial Park.
She shared tips and tricks for working with small mammals, including an introduction to and simulation of trapping. Witterick also brought camera units used to follow animal tracks, using hands-on activities to illustrate for the students how to track behavioural responses in larger animals.
“I want to get the students interested in biology and help them see there’s more to that degree than just a funnel to medical school, dental school, pharmacy school; there’s a lot you can do outdoors.”