“I’ve always been quite an outdoor enthusiast,” said Stewart, an assistant professor in the Department of Soil Science and the Toxicology Centre. “From that I think grew a curiosity about the natural world, its systems and how they work.”
While Stewart describes her expertise as quite a “mixed bag” of soil study in Arctic environments, she cites biocrusts as a particular area of specialty.
“These are the first early colonizers,” she explained. “You find them on the toes of glaciers, you find them on the edge of pathways – anywhere the soil’s been disturbed.”
Biocrusts organisms include cyanobacteria, which fix nitrogen and provide a foothold to other pioneer species such as lichens, mosses and liverworts. These, in turn, add carbon to the soil and make possible the growth of higher plants.
Stewart completed her undergraduate and Masters degrees at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, where she first became interested in disturbed soils, in this case at the forest edge affected by fire or timber harvesting.
When she started at the U of S in September 2015, it was a natural progression of a relationship that started while she was completing her PhD at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. There, a group of soil scientists had made connections with U of S soil experts Angela Bedard-Haughn and Steven Siciliano. Stewart came to Saskatchewan as a visiting researcher, a relationship that led to a summer project on Ellesmere Island in Canada’s High Arctic as part of International Polar Year efforts.
Somewhere in her academic training and travels, she found she had fallen in love with the North. She moved to Whitehorse to do research with colleagues at Yukon College.
“Their research centre was more focused on collaborating with industry,” she said. “I came with a background of looking at plant soil systems in northern environments and got increasingly involved in doing things like restoration and remediation.”
While much of her work involves studies to help guide best practices for industrial development such as mines, power transmission, and pipelines, Stewart emphasizes her role as an “honest broker,” creating knowledge that can guide everyone.
“It’s something that will always govern what I’m doing,” she said. “While I’m still interested in working with industry, I’m just as interested in working with communities and finding ways to make those relationships beneficial to all parties.”