Shelby Robertson (she/her), a fourth-year student in Environmental Science Ecology, has been working towards making an impact on the environment through her co-op position at Parks Canada. She shares with us her experiences working in an aquatic field and how her courses helped her throughout her work terms.
Shelby has completed a total of five co-op terms:
Work term 1: Environment and Climate Change Canada, eco toxicology lab assistant
Work term 2: Earth Sciences Museum, teaching/research assistant
Work term 3: University of Waterloo, field technician
Work term 4: Environment and Climate Change Canada, eco toxicology lab assistant
Work term 5: Parks Canada, aquatic field technician
Before Shelby’s first co-op term, she knew she wanted a job that would help her in the future. So, she planned ahead and worked on a garden.
“It wasn’t very science-related, but it was something that showed I had an interest and a little bit of experience with restoration and plant work. I think it helped me get my first job.”
Main projects at Parks Canada
Shelby's most recent co-op experience was working at Parks Canada in Banff, where a couple of the bigger restoration projects are going on with the Aquatics department, one of them being restoring a stream.
“We’ve been monitoring the amount of water going through and the last couple of weeks we’ve been working on removing some of the invasive fish that have found their way in.”
“The hope is that once we remove them, in a couple of years, we’ll be able to put in a threatened species and have them thrive in this nine kilometer stretch of stream that we’re sectioning off for them.”
What was the most challenging thing about co-op
“The thing that is always challenging is applying for co-ops while studying. It’s always overwhelming but there’s always a way through it.”
“Outside of that, I’ve had a lot of different jobs and two of them have taken me quite far from home. Particularly, it’s been really hard to find housing around my current job, it’s just not available.”
“I had to talk to my bosses and figure out how they got around the housing struggle. I ended up posting an ad for myself as a roommate on Facebook and that’s how I got in.”
What was the most rewarding thing about co-op?
“I’ve had the opportunity to help with some of the research that they’ve been doing here and contribute to building the knowledge base on what a project like this should look like.”
“Reintroducing fish hasn’t been done in a lot of places and making a home for a threatened species is something pretty new.”
“I’ve already got to see some of the changes. I fished the same stretch three times now and I’m not finding any invasive fish, which has been great!”
Applying learnings from study terms to co-op work
“One of the most useful courses I had was EARTH 223 Field Methods in Hydrology. They teach you about string gauging and water sampling, and I do all those things.”
“Now for my job, nobody really needs to explain what’s happening to me because I already know how to do it.”
“And then there’s theory aspects. It’s really interesting to see different practices put into play and why they don’t go exactly as they should according to a textbook or professor. But that adaptation has been really cool.”
What is something you learned that you would take with you in the future?
“Working on the big restoration project has given me a lot of insight into how that actually goes down. The incredible amount of time and effort that something like this takes is not something you get out of a textbook.”
“In particular, skills like electrofishing or helicopter safety are things I had no basis in before and now I can do pretty confidently.
What made you realize this is what you want to do?
“I had a sample of a field position last summer where I was half in a lab and half in the field, and I really enjoyed the field component. Especially in the summer, it was really important for me to get outside and I think it spoke to me more because of COVID and how closed down things were. I wanted to be out and about.”
“I think climate change is probably one of the biggest challenges we face and it can be really daunting to think about. I really do believe that if you take action, you feel better about doing something over nothing and maybe you can make a difference as well.”
Advice for first-year co-op students
“Don’t be discouraged by the fact that you’re applying with people that might have more experience than you. At my first co-op job they were looking for somebody that they could mold into a good scientist. They knew I was coming with fewer lab skills than somebody in third year would, but that’s exactly what they were looking for.”
“That ended up being a great job and they had me back for another term. So, don’t count yourself out!”
What did you enjoy about your company’s culture?
“Working with Parks Canada is really fun because everybody here is pretty adventurous, very friendly and dedicated to doing something positive for the environment.”
“But also, it’s balanced with tourism and getting other people outside to enjoy the environment and care about it themselves.”
“Banff is the busiest national park in Canada and it brings challenges that we have to manage, but everybody is determined to find that balance so that people can enjoy the outdoors and respect it.”
Shelby will be graduating in April and will be taking another field job for the summer.
“I found that I really enjoy this and will probably be in Alberta or the Rockies again because it’s amazing. After that, I’m going to take a month off and I have a contract offer from one of my previous employers, so I’ll take that.”
“Then, I’m thinking of doing my masters the following year in Aquatic Ecology or Environmental Restoration, something along those lines.”