School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

New Student Driven Conference of National Proportions

Water Conference volunteers

By Sharday Mosurinjohn
September 2013

In a time when there is mounting interest in both interdisciplinarity and ecological questions, water is a perfect thematic for drawing together the vanguard of early researchers in Canada. At the Queen’s Water Research Centre (WRC), a cadre of enterprising graduate students has taken inspiration from an annual symposium for local researchers and created a new student-driven conference of national proportions.

Co-chairs Donya Danesh (PhD Candidate, Biology) and Sarah Thompson (MASc Candidate, Civil Engineering) have assembled a team of Queen’s graduate student organizers who are now seeking student representatives from other universities across the country. “The student committee is not just a group of volunteers,” they explain, “it's a network of early water researchers.” The scope of ideas and projects within the purview of this initiative certainly calls for collaboration on a grand scale. As the WRC notes, “water-related issues are a driving force for economic growth, social well-being and a healthy population in Canada and around the world.”

Danesh and Thompson are obviously galvanized by the indisputable value of water research, but not only that; they are buoyed by finding a new sense of community. “Sometimes you lose focus of the bigger picture and feel isolated when you’re getting deep into your own research,” says Thompson. “I noticed how participating in the symposium this past January freed us from that feeling for a bit.” Adds Danesh, “We want to provide the same inspiration and sharing for other graduate students who are from different fields but have water in common. We have a need as early researchers to feel like part of a community and a movement – and for something to look forward to, where we can make friends and networks.”

Another dimension of the conference’s professionalization mandate is in building leadership capacity. Thompson reflects on conference experiences in the past: “At a lot of the events students might go to, they can feel like they have a very small role. Students are usually participants, not leaders. They’re presenting posters, not running workshops. But with this conference, every single activity is run by students.” “We owe a debt of gratitude to the university for making this unique opportunity possible,” Danesh insists. “Queen’s has been amazing. They want us to succeed.”

The co-chairs’ enthusiasm for the conference is palpable, and they’re equally committed to their own research projects. Danesh, a paleolimnologist with a background in engineering and environmental sciences, studies the long-term climatic impacts on Canada’s boreal lakes over the past 10,000 years. (Translated from the Greek, paleolimnology simply means the study (logos) of old (paleo) lakes (limnos). “During the mid-Holocene (4000 – 8000 Years Before Present) there was a time when it was one to two degrees warmer than it was today. Two to four degrees warmer is what’s predicted for the future.” Like the conference, Danesh’s research is guided by a vision of looking at the past in order to predict the future to help protect Canada’s pristine freshwater resources.

Whereas Danesh remembers her interest in water research snapping into focus one day (she recalls: “in an environmental development course during my third year at Brock, it just clicked – I knew my future was in freshwater”), Thompson developed an early connection to water. Growing up in the Yukon, she spent long days at a lakeside cabin. Now, she researches the effects of arctic environmental conditions on wastewater stabilization ponds in Nunavut; specifically, she is looking at how 24-hour sunlight affects algae growth and natural disinfection under the land of the midnight sun. Following the theme of the conference, Thompson’s research will ensure northern communities are able to provide effective wastewater treatment into the future as the northern population increases.

With the co-chairs’ strong sense of being on-purpose in their research goals, persistence has still been absolutely essential to getting hold of the opportunities that would further their work. “During the second symposium, the faculty directors announced that next year it would be student run. I knew I had to get involved. I wrote to them just about every month until they finally said to me ‘Okay, you start in September,’” remembers Danesh. Thompson matches her energy, saying the two can’t stop talking about it. “Donya and I are in touch with each other about the conference every day. We’re sparing no effort because we believe that this conference will show early researchers that you can venture out from your niches and maximize the importance and validity of your work.”

With all of their fellow conference participants, Thompson and Danesh want to create a culture where early researchers learn to value a multidisciplinary approach.

In the future, they affirm, this methodological orientation will be as crucial as the substantive issue of dealing with challenges facing Canada’s water – comprising the largest source of fresh water globally – in an era of climate change, population growth and increasing stressors.

Nonetheless, the co-chairs’ message is a resolutely positive one. “We envision a collaborative future where different sectors – industry, academic researchers, and government – help each other out. There shouldn’t be conflict, there should be working together. And people should be excited about it.”

The Water Research Centre Graduate Student Conference will run May 4th - 6th, 2014. To get involved, contact A call for abstracts will be released in October 2013.

Learn more about the Water Research Centre.