School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Donya Danesh

Ph.D candidate,  Biology

photo of Donya Danesh holding a gravity core from one of her study lakes in northwest ontario

Donya holding a gravity core from one of her study lakes (Gall Lake) in northwest Ontario

Getting to the core of climate change in an ecotone?

by Sharday Mosurinjohn, August 2015

Donya Danesh’s PhD work in paleolimnology on a subfield with only a few remaining experts in the world has taken her from the deepest parts of remote Northwest Ontario lakes to the shores of an old world city (Amsterdam), to visit two of those experts at the Paleo Ecology and Landscape Ecology Group at the Institute of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED) at University of Amsterdam.

Donya Danesh and Supervisor Dr. Brian Cumming with a gravity core from a lake in Sudbury, Ontario

Danesh and Supervisor Dr. Brian Cumming with a gravity core from a lake in Sudbury, Ontario.

Danesh’s academic work focuses on long-term climate impacts to fresh water resources. But her world has long been organized around water – the child of two environmental engineers, she grew up interacting with water in ways that taught her that there was more to appreciate about it than the surf at the beach, collecting invertebrates from the sediments and learning how to take flow measurements.

The work she is doing now started in her undergraduate at Brock University where she wrote an honours thesis in palynology (the study of fossil pollen) with researcher Dr. Francine McCarthy, initially studying dinoflagellates, a kind of algae it turns out are rather tricky for novice eyes to identify under the microscope. Danesh’s supervisor therefore suggested she first try counting everything she could see under the microscope so her eyes could become more familiar with the different structures of organisms. But when she did, she discovered a plethora of other structures of interest – what are called non-pollen palynomorphs (NPPs). That is, microfossils other than pollen and spores from plants found within samples prepared for pollen analyses, including moss, bits of grass, charcoal, fungi, fossil algae etc.

Dr. Bas van Geel showing me the techniques used to analyze peat deposits

Dr. Bas van Geel showing me the techniques used to analyze peat deposits


This was one of those moments when the blue skies of primary research open up, and a scholar starts down a path they never expected. Danesh’s imagination was captivated by the potential “utility of these not-so-well studied microfossils.”

In Danesh’s research NPPs are proving to be important indicators of what was going on in the lakes at the time when they fossilized. The study region of interest for Danesh is what’s called an “ecotone,” a climatically sensitive transitional region between two niches – in this case, the border between Manitoba’s prairies and Ontario’s boreal forest. Danesh hopes to use the information she has gained from the terrestrial indicators (fossil pollen) coupled with the information she will gain from the exploratory research of NPPs to try to paint a more colourful picture of what changes have occurred in the past (due to climate) in this region.

There are many other well-established biological proxies that are good indicators of the impact of climate to lakes systems, but NPPs can provide a unique opportunity to tell us something more, because each year sediment is deposited to the bottom of the lake, and as a result things are fossilized. These sediment layers are like tree rings; each layer shows us 1 - 10 years of lake history. To answer the question of long-term change though, Danesh has to dig deep – her research covers the time since the last glaciation, meaning the past 10,000 years. So, in an aluminum boat with a device called a “corer,” Danesh and supervisor Dr. Brian Cumming put some elbow grease into it, boring down 5-10 metres of lake sediment.

It’s been five years on this topic, and Danesh says with a grin she “can’t let it go just yet.” Hopefully she doesn’t, because if she’s not carrying the NPP torch, so to speak, it might burn out – the remaining world experts Dr. Bas van Geel and Dr. Peter Coesel are both retired. However, there has been an increased interest in the use of NPPs in the last decade, thanks to the efforts of Dr. van Geel, and it’s this momentum Danesh is running with.

Donya Danesh, PhD Candidate. with Jan van Arkel, Graphic Designer - IBED

Microscopy Imaging Techniques - Learning how to use the proper techniques/programs for analyzing photos of specimens/organisms found under the microscope (Left: Donya Danesh, PhD Candidate. Right: Jan van Arkel, Graphic Designer - IBED)


In Danesh’s first year at Queen’s she was invited to attend a 3-day workshop at the University of Amsterdam by Dr. van Geel in her previous supervisor’s stead, since she couldn’t make it. “It was amazing to be around likeminded people,” Danesh says. “No one else works on these organisms! Everyone was so helpful, kind, and collaborative. Before I left I said to myself ‘I’m coming back here – I don’t know when or how but it’s going to happen.’ I even told Dr. van Geel.”

This year Danesh made her dream come true. Her supervisor Dr. Cumming had said that if she could outline a plan to return to the University of Amsterdam for research, he would support it. Therefore she worked on an application to the Dean’s travel grant, but it was unsuccessful. Undeterred, Danesh wrote directly to Dr. van Geel and Dr. Coesel, who generously said that they would be more than happy to have her as a visiting scholar and offered access to all of the resources and information that she’d need. Luck also had it that Danesh’s own sister had been so infected by her enthusiasm for the University of Amsterdam that she had begun a Master’s in Communication there in the meantime, so Danesh had yet another happy host.

Over the month she is spending at the state-of-the-art Paleo Ecology Lab in Amsterdam – which will be followed by a shorter visit at Brock University– one of the most important parts is just spending time with scholars who have a whole career behind them. “This kind of intergenerational knowledge transfer is so valuable for solving problems,” Danesh says, and indeed, sometimes for the very continuity of a field.

Collaboration has long been a motto for Danesh. That’s how she co-founded (and currently chairs) the now hugely successful Water Initiative for the Future (WatIF): Graduate Student Conference. “Grad school can be a little bit isolating,” she explains, “and so in 2013 I signed up to help run a local water symposium for grad students at Queen’s and RMC in hopes of making new friends and becoming a part of the community.”

Donya Danesh in Amsterdam with fellow grad student .

Peer to peer learning - Learning different lab techniques from a fellow graduate student at IBED, University of Amsterdam (Left: Jippe Kreuning, MSc Student at UvA. Right: Donya Danesh, PhD Candidate at Queen's)..

The results shocked her. That year students from Queen’s and RMC came out in droves, with the upshot of connecting formerly unacquainted researchers not just working in the same buildings but working on solutions to parts of each other’s research questions. “If this could happen at Queen’s,” Danesh and her co-organizers wondered, “imagine what could happen across Canada?” It was then that they decided to create a conference, and so a one-off symposium became WatIF, which grew to national, and this year, for the first time, international proportions.

In the spirit of spreading ideas that matter, Danesh’s current dream is to give a TED talk. “Really all I want to do is work hard and empower the people around me and live by what I say. If I can lead by example I can help people to become the best versions of themselves, to feel empowered, and inspired.” The nomination isn’t a sure thing yet, but it’s safe to suggest keeping an eye out for Danesh this year on a Queen’s TEDx stage near you.