Advancing the North through Research
by Patricia Robertson
ADVANCING THE NORTH THROUGH RESEARCH
The Yukon Research Centre is making a name for itself nationally—even if it takes some smoked salmon to do it.
At the recent International Polar Year conference in Montreal, "Someone came up to our display booth and said, ‘You have the favourite booth,’ ” says the Centre’s communications coordinator, Tanis Davey. "Though that could have been because we were giving out smoked salmon!"
Still, the fascination with the Centre’s work was genuine. "People couldn’t believe what we were doing in Yukon," Davey adds. "A lot of people said, ‘Colleges don’t do the research you’re doing,’ but we are."
The Yukon Research Centre is a one-of-a-kind northern institution, designed to promote Yukon innovation and research using a collaborative approach that includes traditional knowledge as well as the social, natural, and physical sciences. An arm of Yukon College, it is fully accredited by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Canada’s federal funding agency for university-based research and student training in natural sciences.
Many Yukoners, however, aren’t aware that the Centre—which began life as the Northern Research Institute and then morphed into the Yukon Research Centre of Excellence—is now the umbrella for six key programs, as well as playing host to independent researchers from across Canada and the circumpolar world. Two of those programs, Cold Climate Innovation and Technology Innovation, focus on applied research, innovation, and commercialization, says Davey. "They really engage Yukoners and their knowledge."
One such innovation is the Plastovac, a machine designed by Garret Gillespie of Boreal Compost Enterprises to remove plastic contaminants from community compost.
With the Centre’s support, a prototype machine is now being tested by a recycling company on Vancouver Island. "The company is so pleased with the Plastovac that they’ve replaced the existing North American machine with our prototype," reports Davey.
Another project involves the development of a dual-frequency Ice Penetrating Radar (IPR) system. This technology will allow researchers to understand the response of glaciers to climate, including changes to their flow regimes, using a commercial-grade instrument targeted to scientific research groups and natural resources industries.
Then there’s the Northern Climate ExChange (NCE), which focuses on education and research on climate change. NCE recently completed an ambitious project on adaptation planning for climate change involving three Yukon communities and Atlin, B.C. "Most climate change adaptation planning involves hiring someone to do the planning," explains Davey. "For the first time in Canada, as far as we know, this adaptation planning was driven by each community." The City of Whitehorse has adopted its own community-driven plan outright.
The Centre also reaches out to the schools with Science Adventures (formerly Innovators in the Schools), which offers "fun, hands-on science and technology for Yukon students from K to 12." Its programs include a popular annual science fair, an all-girls science club, and a stay-a-day program that brings students on visits to the Centre.
Beyond the physical sciences, the Centre is also home to the Biodiversity Monitoring program that focuses on key populations and ecosystems across the Yukon.
The program houses four decades’ worth of data about the cycling of the ptarmigan, a main food source for gyrfalcons. "The data shows that the ptarmigan population should be peaking right now," says Davey, "but instead it’s disappeared. That affects the predator because the gyrfalcon bases how much it’s going to breed on the amount of ptarmigan meat the male brings to the female during courtship."
Finally there is Resources and Sustainable Development in the Arctic (ReSDA), a seven-year circumpolar social science research program that began in April 2011.
Its aim is to look at ways to ensure that a larger share of the benefits of resource development stays in the north with fewer costs to communities, explains northern coordinator Valoree Walker.
ReSDA builds on the work of a northern Canada-based program, the Social Economy Research Network of Northern Canada (SERNNoCa). That program explored the interconnections between the private and public sectors and the social economy in the development and sustainability of northern communities. One SERNNoCa researcher, Nick Falvo, recently presented his PhD research on homelessness and poverty in the north in Whitehorse. SERNNoCa research was also done with the community of Old Crow on cross-border trade and its impact on the Vuntut Gwitchin following tighter border controls in the aftermath of 9/11.
The Centre has its own research laboratory that is currently being used for a number of projects, including a collections area and a free standing all-season greenhouse whose produce is used in the college cafeteria. Students from the School of Access built the greenhouse, which employs a new northern design, and a partnership with Growers of Organic Food Yukon (GoOFY) enables the food to be produced.
The Centre also attracts individual researchers such as Vicky Sahanatien, who is currently finishing her PhD in polar bear research at the University of Alberta. "A lot of our work is about building relationships and connections," says Davey.
As an arm of Yukon College, the Centre also offers graduates of the college’s science program an opportunity to complete independent projects. "We’re trying to create those bridges so students can use the Centre and come up with their own independent ideas," Davey notes.
Even the Centre’s head, vice-president of research Dr. Chris Hawkins, exemplifies its idea-driven approach. A forester by training, Hawkins is currently studying the possible use of willows in mitigating permafrost melt along Yukon’s North Alaska highways.
"Our researchers," says Hawkins, "are advancing the north, one innovative solution at a time."
For more information on the work of the Centre, visit their website at www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/research/
This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College, with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at www.taiga.net/yourYukon.