Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

Search form

Syncing stories on Canada’s North

[Alexander Zahara]
Environmental studies student Alexander Zahara explains his research on a waste site fire in Iqaluit to a fellow symposium participant. The title of his poster is "Taima: Risk and Uncertainty in the Iqaluit 'Dumpcano.'" Taima means “enough” in Inuktitut. (University Communications)

Alexander Zahara (MES’15) is interested in waste. In fact, the environmental studies student has made looking at waste sites the focus of his master’s research. But when a controversial dump fire erupted in the summer of 2014 during his fieldwork in Iqaluit, he knew it was about much more than waste.

“The fire – dubbed “Dumpcano” – burned for three months, was the size of a football field, and released carcinogens into the air, causing all sorts of problems for the community and its citizens,” says Mr. Zahara, who participated in the Northern Research Symposium at Queen’s on April 15. “I’ve been studying it as a waste issue, which means that so many other issues – social, political, cultural and economic – are wrapped into it. The research is very interdisciplinary.”

Mr. Zahara’s multidisciplinary approach to the research is one reason he brought his work to the annual symposium, which draws together scholars who work in the Canadian North from many different departments across Queen’s – including those in biology, chemical and civil engineering, geography, kinesiology and health, and sociology.

“The northern regions face a lot of challenges, many of them multidisciplinary, and Queen’s is well-positioned in its research programs to look at those challenges and find synergies between the different projects underway,” said Neal Scott (Geography), a faculty organizer, in his opening remarks at the symposium.

“This event brings together 13 university departments and 13 countries are represented through the various collaborations with other universities,” added Cynthia Fekken, Associate Vice-Principal (Research), who attended the symposium. “It’s a delight to see so many participating in northern research and gathering here where there is a chance for open dialogue and networking.”

Biology student Casper Christiansen (PhD’15), also one of the event’s organizers, says if the symposium didn’t exist, many students and scholars wouldn’t have the chance to meet, and wouldn’t, perhaps, strike up inter-departmental research collaborations or get the chance to think about their own work in a different light.

“It’s all about making connections. We can all learn from each other, and ask different questions,” he says.

For example, physical scientists are often absorbed in very specific data collection, such as tracking temperature changes in Arctic rivers, and are not necessarily thinking about the social and political issues. The symposium helps researchers look at their own work in new and varied ways.

This year’s event began with a keynote address from Scott Goetz, from the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass. Dr. Goetz spoke about his work measuring changes in arctic and boreal vegetation and their climate feedback implications. He also talked about the impact of a fire in northern peatlands on carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere. 

“These disturbances, and future anthropogenic disturbances in this region, could have a major impact on the carbon balance of the Arctic”, says Dr. Scott.

Participants then had a chance to view poster presentations in the BioSciences Atrium, including that of Mr. Zahara, and heard various brief oral presentations from Queen’s students and faculty.

At the end of the day, Mr. Zahara, whose research was conducted as part of the SSHRC-funded Canada's Waste Flow research project, says it was great to see such a strong focus on research that engages with northerners.

“The symposium is an important event that brings together a variety of Queen’s researchers who care deeply about Canada's North. It's good for us to have a conversation.”

More information on the Northern Research Symposium