FYRE on the Beamline

Thanks to a collaboration between the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, the Undergraduate Research Initiative, and the Canadian Light Source, professor Colin Laroque offered students in Environmental Science 110 an exciting opportunity in fall 2016: to complete a research project using the IDEAS Beamline at the Canadian Light Source (CLS). Zachary Person, a third year student in the college took part in the pilot project. He shares why he chose to participate and what made for a unique and cutting-edge, First-Year Research Experience (FYRE).

Zachary Person (right) working with fellow students on FYRE project.

Person thought it sounded cool when he first heard about the research project because he had not expected to have the chance to use the CLS as an undergraduate student. He was intimidated at first, wondering how much extra work would be involved, but ultimately he decided to take advantage of the opportunity. Before he got involved, all Person knew about the CLS was limited to information he had from having toured the facility in high school. Fortunately, the training and oversight provided through Tracy Walker, CLS Education Programs Lead, gave Person the necessary knowledge, building his confidence and preparing him for the research project.

Learning to Balance the Beamline

Person again toured the CLS, along with the others in the group selecting to participate in the FYRE on the Beamline pilot, in one of the first lab classes. Initially, it was still a bit over everyone’s heads what exactly they would be doing, but it was helpful to see everything in order to better visualize the project’s methodologies. Students went on to complete some requisite online training modules which included learning CLS safety procedures. Undergraduate researchers also needed to obtain security badges to be able to access the CLS when it was time for them to use the beamline. They always operated equipment under the supervision of CLS scientists and research coach Magali Furlan Nehemy, a Master of Science student in the School of Environment and Sustainability.

Students in FYRE on the Beamline were divided into groups to complete the project, which involved studying the effect of oil sands emissions on the trembling aspen and white spruce trees found upstream alongside the Clearwater river in Alberta. Undergraduate researchers examined tree core samples by using the beamline to “zap” them, which allowed levels of distinct elements to be identified. Person’s group hypothesized that they would see some elements in high dosages or toxic amounts, and were specifically interested in the level of manganese (Mn), because past research suggests Mn negatively affects white spruce trees.

Person, along with some classmates, chose to volunteer extra time researching on behalf of Dr. Laroque. This provided them with extra training, such as how to load samples and use the computer at the beamline. Although not mandatory, it pertained to the rest of the project and proved a great learning experience for the students. A major concern for Person before becoming involved in the project was the time commitment, but he contends it was absolutely worth it. He considers the experience he gained worth far more than the time invested completing modules and touring the facility.

Fyred up About Group Work

As part of the project, students were required to share their findings by creating and presenting a FYRE poster in the end-of-term college-wide event on December 2nd, 2016 and to make a PowerPoint presentation for scientists at the synchrotron. In these ways, students explained what resources they used and why, what they anticipated finding, and the benefits and implications of their research. Person assures that students who are intimidated by presentations should not be alarmed, because the entire group of six worked and presented together. He continued to suggest that students who are turned off by group work should not dismiss this type of opportunity, as Person admitted the group work was a lot of fun and allowed him to get to know students he might not have otherwise met. Since he recently transferred to the University of Saskatchewan from Lakeland College, getting to know his classmates and professor in a research setting helped him to feel more connected to campus.

Hands-on Research, Hands-off Writer’s Block

Person never expected to work on a CLS research project in his first-year at the U of S. Like many students, he came to university expecting to simply write research papers without ever physically engaging in the research process. However, Person’s favourite part of the project was the hands-on work, something one simply cannot experience when writing a paper. But there was still writing involved, which he described in the following way, “If you get to do the fun stuff, you have to do the hard part too.” Person describes how this experience has been beneficial to him: it broadened his education and career interests (he is thinking about continuing his education after his undergraduate degree, something he hadn’t considered prior to this class), it gave him a better sense of what research is, and it provided him with the opportunity to make research connections on campus. Person urges future EVSC 110 students to take part in the research project, should the pilot be offered again, because he attests that even if it was intimidating, the experience was also really rewarding.