Engaging with Science | May 15, 2015 | By Scott Higgins, Research Scientist

How to get involved as a researcher

Starting a new research project at any remote field station can be a challenging endeavour, but the rewards can be great, especially at a research facility like the IISD-ELA. IISD-ELA is a remote field station in northwestern Ontario, Canada, with access to, and the ability to conduct whole-ecosystem experiments on, boreal lakes and their watersheds. You may have questions about how the transition of the Experimental Lakes Area from a federal government facility to one operated by a non-profit organization (IISD-Experimental Lakes Area Inc.) affects visiting researchers. I’d like to provide a few comments, particularly to researchers who have never worked at the facility before, on how they can initiate a research project.

The first and most important news is that, through a historic partnership between the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba, the facility remains open and we are eager to facilitate its use by external researchers.


Second, given the transition from a facility operated by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans to a non-profit agency interested in sustainable development, the scope of potential research projects is much larger. For example, in addition to projects that focus on freshwater resources, new projects could have a greater emphasis on terrestrial ecosystems. In terms of freshwater research, projects at IISD-ELA generally fall into three categories: 1) The use of data from the facility’s long-term ecological monitoring (LTER) program or data from previously conducted whole-ecosystem experiments; 2) smaller-scale experiments (e.g., mesocosms/enclosure experiments) or observational research projects that do not require large-scale ecosystem manipulation; and 3) large-scale ecosystem manipulations.

Whatever your research, one of the first steps is to visit is our website, particularly the For Researchers section.This section outlines how to propose new research projects and request data. The website also lists some of the current and past experiments, which provide a context for the scope of potential projects. While we do not fund research projects, we can work with you on your funding proposal, providing and/or collecting background data, in-kind support, acting as co-applicants/collaborators where appropriate, and assisting with the planning of your research project (e.g., lake/watershed selection, logistics). Research projects can vary widely, from a few day trips to gather samples to a multi-year experiment. Whatever your approach, we are here to assist you.

Data collection and sharing: Meteorological, hydrological, limnological and fisheries data have been collected since 1968 as part of our LTER program. IISD-ELA jointly operates a meteorology station (MET site) with Environment Canada that collects daily temperature, precipitation (including chemistry of wet and dry fall), evaporation, wind speed and direction, relative humidity, solar insolation, and barometric pressure. The IISD-ELA station is also a Canadian Air and Precipitation Monitoring Network (CAPMoN) site. The hydrology program at IISD-ELA includes detailed assessment of inflows and outflows, including stream chemistry, from our main reference lake (L239). A series of rain gauges and weirs in the watersheds of other IISD-ELA lakes are routinely monitored. The limnology program includes the bi-weekly collection of physical, chemical (macronutrients, major cations and anions, pH, alkalinity, chlorophyll), and biological (phytoplankton and zooplankton taxonomy/enumeration) data from five reference lakes during the ice-free period, and twice annual collections (without phytoplankton and zooplankton data) on these lakes during the ice-covered period. The fisheries program includes typical fisheries metric data for a number of species (length, weight, age, relative abundance), as well as capture histories to facilitate mark-recapture population estimates. The LTER program has operated since 1968, with the longest data record for L239; additional reference lakes have variable lengths of datasets with records beginning from the early 1970s to 2000. To request the data, please go to the For Researchers section of our website.

Planning experiments: The unique aspect of IISD-ELA is our legislated capacity to conduct whole-ecosystem experiments. There have been over 50 whole-ecosystem experiments at the facility, examining the effects of physical (e.g., water diversion, water-level manipulation), chemical (e.g., nutrients, pH, pharmaceuticals, metals) and biological (e.g., trophic cascade) factors. An even greater number of mesocosm/enclosure experiments have been conducted. Experiments involving ecosystem manipulations require approval from an oversight board, whose membership includes individuals from IISD-ELA, the IISD-ELA science advisory board and the Ontario government.

If you are interested in undertaking a whole-lake or mesocosm experiment, please contact one of our research scientists. We can assist with lake/watershed selection, logistical considerations, provide supporting data (e.g., in-kind contribution to your proposal) and help guide your proposal through the approval process. The IISD-ELA provides laboratory space; access to boats, motors and all-terrain vehicles (with proper training/certification); access to a wood shop; food and lodging; and laundry facilities. Users are charged a per diem rate for the use of the facility. We can also consider arrangements where our staff collect your samples or accompany your staff/students in the field (we require two-person teams for remote field work and use of boats). Rates will be posted on our website shortly.

The most unique benefit of conducting your research at IISD-ELA is the potential to engage in whole-ecosystem experiments. Other benefits of working at our research station is that we take care of many of the logistics (e.g., accommodations, food/lodging, boats and ATVs, etc.), allowing your staff and students to focus on their research. A long-term dataset of meteorology, hydrology, limnology and fisheries program data is an excellent and freely available resource that can be used to support your project. Also, we have the capacity to design and collaborate on large multi-disciplinary ecosystem-level projects to solve large environmental challenges. We encourage you to visit our website for more information and initiate your research program at IISD-ELA.