Tapping Freshwater Science

With its countless lakes and rivers and 20% of the world's supply of fresh water, Canada is a prime location for scientists looking for a career in freshwater research. Environment Canada's National Water Research Institute (NWRI), an integrated, multi-disciplinary institution with a staff of 350 and centres and research sites scattered across Canada, works to protect and conserve Canada's water resources.

"We're working on freshwater problems with real-life applications, and we're trying to inform policy development and regulations," says Alex Bielak, Director of the Science Liaison Branch of NWRI. "In effect, we are making sure that Canadians coast to coast have clean, safe water."

The Source

NWRI got its start 35 years ago on the shores of Lake Ontario where a handful of scientists started studying the rapid degradation of the Great Lakes. At first, they looked mainly at the impacts of the accumulation of contaminants like DDT on the aquatic ecosystem, but they soon branched out. "Serious environmental issues like this made the government back in the late sixties quickly realize that Canada needed a first-rate water research institution. Over time we began to address a multitude of freshwaters issues," says Bielak.

Today NWRI has three main research branches that focus on aquatic ecosystems. The Management Branch investigates how man-made activities like urbanization, agricultural practices, and wastewater impact Canadian water supplies. The Impacts Branch specializes in developing indicators of ecosystem health and contamination. The Protection Branch conducts research on toxic chemicals and helps develop decision-making and management action plans. Collectively, the organization's goal is to mitigate and manage the effects of Canada's increasing population on its supply of fresh water. "Much of the research at our facility is driven by increased population, increased urbanization, and the demand that human activity puts on water resources," says John Lawrence, Director of NWRI's Aquatic Ecosystem Management Research Branch.

NWRI has two main facilities: the Canada Centre for Inland Waters in Burlington, Ontario (pictured above), and the National Hydrology Research Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Smaller regional offices have opened up over the years in Gatineau in Quebec, Fredericton in New Brunswick, and Victoria in British Columbia. The institute hosts experts in fields ranging from water science to water policy with specialties in aquatic ecology, toxicology, physical geography, modeling, limnology, and environmental chemistry. About half the organization's employees are technical support staff. Another 40% are scientific positions, and half of these have Ph.D.s.

Going with the Flow

According to Bielak, the main route to getting hired at NWRI runs through the federal job board. Human resources and research management staff screen incoming applications and whittle down the usually large pool of applicants to a group of the five or six best qualified. These prospects participate in a series of interviews from which a competency profile is developed. Applicants are screened for conceptual thinking, ethics and values, "results orientation," scientific knowledge, self-confidence, strategic thinking, and "team leadership," among other skills and characteristics.

While NWRI doesn't have specific recruitment drives, the institute is always looking for new talent to join their research teams, and there's no time like the present--or, rather, the near future. Many of the organizations current senior scientists were hired during its early years; over the next 5 years dozens of institute scientists may be retiring, according to Lawrence. Some of the expected vacancies will be filled by junior-level researchers in existing NWRI specialties, says Lawrence, but the organization also sees this as an opportunity to extend its research into new areas.

Opportunities already exist for graduate students and postdocs in the various branches and centres. Scientists are encouraged to bring young researchers into their teams via postdocs and internships, Bielak says; summers at the institute are particularly busy. "There are times when I see more students and postdocs in the hallways than staff."


NSERC Visiting Fellowship program, which places recent graduates in government laboratories. The starting stipend, as set by the government, currently sits just above $40,000 per year, but is usually supplemented by the lab. The fellowship is renewable for two years at the discretion of NWRI management. Lawrence says that going this route can be a great way for young researchers to make the right contacts at the institute, and this, he says, can lead to employment. The time spent as a fellow allows a researcher to hone skills, gain valuable experience, and become familiar with the range of research done at the centre.

As an alternative, NWRI suggests that potential postdocs look to their own universities for internal fellowship programs that would allow placement at the institute. Partnerships between NWRI and universities across Canada are in place, allowing staff researchers to act as postdoc and student advisors.

Science Horizon Youth Internship Program -- is open to post-graduates, including Ph.D.s. NWRI has had great success with this program, in which recent university science graduates who are unemployed and under 30 years of age can get a chance to work in the water-related field with the guidance of staff scientists. "Here is a chance for students to really benefit from seeing how science will have an impact on regulations, and see how science feeds into the processes of decision-making that protects the environment," says Bielak.

Fresh Careers in Fresh Water

Ever feel like you're swimming upstream in your job search? Bielak urges students still in grad school to attend conferences and take advantage of other opportunities for personal contact. Getting beyond e-mail, he says, is an absolute must. Sometimes, to create opportunities, scientists needs must overcome shyness and ask questions, as this demonstrates commitment and passion for research. "The students who are going to offer something to the scientist . . . will stick out," he adds.

Exall, who studies physical and chemical processes in urban water management, considers working for Canada's largest freshwater facility a perfect career match. For her it was vital to get her feet wet early working in a multidisciplinary setting. She had been considering work in industry, but wanted to give government a try first, and it paid off. "It's a fantastic place to be, a really enthusiastic group of people with a passion about what they do--I'm only too happy to collaborate on projects with them," Exall adds.

Changing Times

Over the years the academic profile of the researchers that come onboard as permanent staff scientists has changed. "When we started this institute," says Lawrence, "we had mostly researchers with backgrounds in chemistry and physics, but now we see a rather high percentage of applicants with biological and ecological degrees."

According to Lawrence, this reflects the changing issues and multidisciplinary nature of freshwater science. "We are looking at more the integrated effects. We've always studied issue by issue, but now we're concentrating on the whole ecosystem," he adds.

Freshwater research across Canada appears to be on the upswing, though much of the funding now goes to universities. As Lawrence admits, this trend has adversely affected human resources at the NWRI. "A lot of funding has gone to the universities through the Canada Research Chairs, and we've had some of our best scientists lured away from us."

But this trend has an upside for NWRI and other government facilities, which struck up partnerships with universities and other organizations. Many individual researchers at NWRI have sought out cross appointments as honorary researcher associates or adjunct faculty members at universities, which allow them to apply for NSERC grants and to teach and have graduate students. "Most of our scientists have one or two graduate students, while some of our senior scientists have postdocs and a string of students in their labs," adds Bielak.

As the value of clean and abundant freshwater resources increases globally, NWRI management believes that new opportunities in research are sure to follow. "Water defines Canada as a country not only in terms of its abundance but in quality as well, so we have to be tremendously vigilant," says Bielak. "Water is such an important area for Canadians, I can only see the role of the institute growing in the future."

For more information on NWRI's research visit their official Web site.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent for Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.

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