School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Curiosity in bloom – Meet Allen Tian

MSc in Biology

by Phil Gaudreau, April 2020

Amy Cleaver

You may have heard media reports about algae blooms in recent years–buildups of excess nutrients in our waterways.

These blooms can be dangerous for the aquatic life in lakes and rivers because the algae may release toxins or use up the oxygen in a body of water when the algae dies and rots, causing the fish to die off and affecting the broader ecosystem. It can also make a body of water unsafe for drinking and swimming.

Sometimes, the appearance of algae is less serious and may just affect the taste or smell of the water. Still, when algae appear, the Ministry of the Environment wants to know about it.

And that’s where the first problem shows up: by the time you can see algae from the banks of a lake or river, it has likely already been present for weeks. The best way to spot algae blooms is from directly overhead.

Fortunately, with advances in drone technology in recent years, graduate students like Allen Tian (Artsci’18) are helping change the algae monitoring process into a more proactive model.

“I’m not only interested in environmental research, but also about emerging technologies like drones,” he says. “My position here lets me combine those passions.”

Allen first became interested in biology during high school. His love of the outdoors matched up with his growing passion for environmental issues, so he enrolled in a Biology/Psychology degree at Queen’s. He has since followed that up with masters studies and hopes to pursue a PhD next, also at Queen’s, to allow him to further his research.

His approach to environmental monitoring, uniting the power of three separate Queen’s labs, relies on a mix of drone imaging, toxin analysis, and genetic techniques to measure the impact of blue-green algal blooms in small lakes.

“low cost, proactive monitoring and predictive model,” he says. “Over the longer term, we want to work with local stakeholders and Indigenous groups to help them manage algae blooms in their freshwater resources without calling the government.”

When he’s not flying his drone–whether for fun or for schoolwork–Allen also serves as the graduate ambassador for the Department of Biology, helping to mentor undergraduate students so they can decide whether a master’s or PhD in biology is suitable for them.

“If you love research, start looking at graduate studies as early as fall of third year of your undergraduate degree,” he advises. “Research experience is essential, so try to volunteer in labs, and apply for funding to secure a position.”

Allen has enjoyed his time at Queen’s, including both the natural environment at the Queen’s University Biological Station as well as the balance of urban and natural of Kingston itself.

“I particularly enjoy the Rideau Canal system and visiting Lemoine Point Conservation Area for hikes,” he says.

To learn more about graduate studies in Biology at Queen’s, visit the School of Graduate Studies’ website.