Researcher Profiles | Dec 14, 2017 | By Sonya Havens, Research Chemist

In Their Own Words: Three chemistry laboratory summer students tell all

Can you believe that our fourth research season as IISD Experimental Lakes Area has come to an end?

As always, it is thanks to our teams both on and off the lakes that we were able to make it such an unprecedented success—and that certainly includes the cohort of invaluable summer students who work in our Chemistry Laboratory (‘chem lab’).

But enough from us. Let’s hear from three of our wonderful students in their own words about what their experience was like spending the summer of 2017 working in the IISD Experimental Lakes Area chem lab.

Hannah Polaczek

Undergraduate Student, University of Manitoba, Research Assistant in the IISD-ELA Chemistry Laboratory

“I can say with confidence that working at IISD-ELA has been the greatest experience of my life thus far. I learned so, so much—not only professionally, but about myself as well.

In the chem lab specifically, I strengthened my project management and interpersonal skills by processing incoming samples and working closely with my fellow ‘chem-labbers’, other crews at IISD-ELA and external researchers. When I started my position in May, I had little-to-no aquatic chemistry experience; at the end of the field season in November I left camp proudly clutching the award for “Most People Trained in the Chem-Lab in a Single Season!”

“IISD-ELA is home to the perfect combination of extremely intelligent, hard-working, and down-to-earth people who know how to relax and have a good time.”

IISD-ELA is very community driven—everyone is more than happy to help each other out with their work and/or research. Every once-and-a-while I got into the field where I did some fishing for science or night sampling for mysis (a genus of zooplankton). Outside of work hours, I spent my time canoeing, camping, taking photographs, and playing board-games with the many life-long friends I made at camp.

IISD-ELA is home to the perfect combination of extremely intelligent, hard-working, and down-to-earth people who know how to relax and have a good time. It truly is a one-of-a-kind place on in so many ways. It’s safe to say that I’m sad to return home after the field season and can’t wait to go back if the opportunity arises!”

Fresh water chemistry laboratory

Hannah Polaczek considers her summer at IISD-ELA to be the greatest experience of her life so far.

Benoit Girouard

Undergraduate Student, University of Manitoba, Research Assistant in the IISD-ELA Chemistry Laboratory

“I am a bit disappointed that the field season is over. Now that it is, I am glad that we are able to concentrate on getting all the chemical testing backlog done so that the data can be added to the database. Building that database up will be important for future reference for anyone that needs it.

I definitely learned quite a bit about the importance of QA/QC (‘quality assurance/quality control’) in the work carried out here at IISD Experimental Lakes Area and elsewhere. For example, I now understand why reference samples are conducted and why we compare  reference and calibration standards.

The highlight of the year would definitely be the experience that I have gathered here with the most important part being the insight I have gained into what a career in this field may entail.

The low would possibly be at the end of the research season when the big storm caused us so many problems out at camp.”

Jamie Dearnley

Undergraduate Student, University of British Colombia, Research Assistant in the IISD-ELA Chemistry Laboratory

“I was really sad about the end of the field season. In my stints out at camp, the spell at the end of this year was probably my favourite time to be there and it was too bad to leave just when the snowy part of the year had begun.

That said, it was regrettable that we missed the final weeks of sampling. It feels like we missed a time-honoured tradition of closing the field season and the reflection that comes with it.

Each year, the field season begins with a hectic two weeks where each of the actively studied lakes are profiled, which means water samples are taken from a succession of depths. Those first two weeks are perhaps the busiest part of the year. Incoming students, who are often completely unfamiliar with the instrumentation and methods with which they are tasked, are forced to learn quickly under a heavy barrage of samples. The instruments themselves don’t necessarily do the analysts any favours, as they are often reluctant to awaken from their winter slumber without putting up a little a bit of a struggle.

“There is so much passion for science in Canada.”

This same profiling of all the lakes typically occurs again at the end of the season, however, things this time around are much different in the chem lab. The students by now are well experienced in their equipment and procedures, and the analyses are a comfortable routine. Instruments are usually working at their best, their performance having been refined through a field season of maintenance and troubleshooting.

Just as people are strangers when you first meet them, so too are the lakes. Like people, though, those lakes also turn into acquaintances and friends as you get to know them. In the chemistry lab world, this translates to knowing which samples you can expect to take a while to filter or which samples you should probably dilute before you measure them, lest you want their signal on the instrument to bleed into the samples proceeding them, tainting the measurements.

Those last two weeks of sampling give you a chance to see the gang again one last time and say goodbye to all your aqueous acquaintances.

At least with the snowstorm at the end we were able to experience some things that few people before us have. It was cool to be a part of a situation in which everyone at camp banded together to clear what seemed like an endless supply of downed trees blocking roads and trails to our lakes and the highway.

Jamie Dearnley finds it hard to hide his love for IISD Experimental Lakes Area (and the technicon in particular).

The snow and cold wasn’t all bad though—it made for some incredibly beautiful scenery and by early November some of the lakes had a developed quite a thick layer of ice. I am not sure how many people in the world can say they have gone skating on their experiment, but I am now one of them!

There are also many lessons I learned this year out at the IISD-ELA camp. These include:

  • While school, finances, and relationships are often cited as difficulties for a student, none of those can come even close to the amount of stress and lost sleep that an improperly performing instrument causes.
  • Food plays an exceptionally large role in dictating overall morale at camp.
  • CBC Radio is crucial to chem lab life. It also really stinks when they change their transmitter so that you can no longer get reception.
  • There is so much passion for science in Canada. There were so many researchers who passed visited the camp this summer from numerous institutions and provinces—not to mention a constant stream of tours passing through. Right now, there are so many projects going on at IISD-ELA, that at times there was barely enough space to house all the researchers and their crews. It is all quite a change from a couple years ago when everyone had a two-bed room to themselves and it was always easy to find a seat at meals!