Bears, fish, and helicopters. Yes, this is an Environmental Sciences co-op job at Waterloo.
Has the topic of “grizzly bears” ever been brought up to you in a job interview? It happened to Shelby Robertson, a recent Environmental Sciences grad who just completed her undergraduate degree in April 2023.
Through co-op, students take their passions and run with them.
Robertson, a former competitive swimmer who grew up near Hamilton, Ontario, on the edge of the province’s famed Bruce Trail network, has always felt a deep protectiveness of the planet and its water systems. So, last year when her best friend told her about a student aquatic technician summer job posting at Banff National Park in Alberta, she was intrigued, but worried she wasn’t quite right for the position.
"I went back and forth about applying. Was I wasting my time? But I finished my application, submitted it, then forgot about it for a month," she remembers now.
Not only did Robertson land an interview, but she also got the job, working from May to August 2023 with the park’s aquatic department on her co-op term. And yes, she aced both the technical questions in the interview — and the one about how she would handle a grizzly bear encounter. (Hint: don’t turn and run.)
"Yeah, the interview questions for a job in Banff National Park are wild!" she says now, mentioning that she did run into bears and elk while on the job. "I loved all the animal encounters and being outside feeling like I was doing something meaningful."
Limitless opportunities of the co-op world
Robertson’s story is only one of many at University of Waterloo that shows the limitless possibilities when combining textbook knowledge with real-world exploration. Waterloo students dip into possible careers, earn money, and gain experience through North America's largest co-op program. Through co-op, students take their passions and run with them.
The program just seemed to connect with her desire solve climate change issues.
Back in high school, Robertson knew she wanted to study something in biology. But it wasn’t until she attended a Waterloo open house and learned more about co-op and Environmental Sciences that she had an ah-ha moment. The program just seemed to connect with her desire to solve climate change issues.
"When I thought about the problems in the world and the things I wanted to tackle, in the end it all comes back to, 'Will we have a livable planet?'" she says. "Can we solve all the other issues if we don't have a livable planet? No."
Recently Robertson has been working in a school lab doing trophic-level analysis. She lays out minuscule samples of aquatic organic material, whether from a fish, corral, algae, and more. Spaghetti worms, sea egg urchins, and channel clinging crabs? She’s worked with them too.
She rolls the samples into tiny balls that are then placed into a mass spectrometer, which vaporises them. The remnants reveal their chemical signatures and even how multiple organisms might have a relationship.
"The isotopes, they accumulate and so you can place them in a network showing how they interact and what they feed on," she explains. "For me, it all comes back to how connected things are."
The technology can even explore how human interference has an impact. Build a dam in one area of a river and eventually the different species will interact in new ways. Their chemical signatures tell an intricate story.
An electrifying co-op job
It’s an ecological lesson she learned in a very different way while at Banff National Park helping out with projects such as the Cascade Creek Restoration Project. Decades ago, a dam was built upstream and the area’s water flow was reduced to a comparative trickle. It wasn’t good for water or fish health. Invasive fish species took the pools over driving out threatened native bull trout and westlope cuthroat trout.
After recent negotiations, more water now flows. It was Robertson’s job to catch and transport the invasive fish to a new part of Bow River where there are already a great number of invasive fish species. Along with colleagues, she cleared a stretch of water and removed competition for the native fish. Eventually, staff will install small incubators as a hatchery.
So how exactly does one catch and release so many fish humanely?
One word. Electrofishing.
"I love explaining electrofishing to people!" says Robertson, her face lighting up. "Picture Ghostbusters."
That is, picture a person wearing a huge backpack carrying what amounts to be a car battery inside. She waves a wand in front of her while a tail drags behind in the water. The wand releases an electrical current. If the fish is close enough, the current draws it closer. Then once it is inside the zone, the contraption stuns it.
"It just floats up to the surface and you can grab it right away with a net. It doesn’t hurt the fish," Robertson says, explaining it’s a two person job with the other using the net. In order to ensure all fish are gone, it was a slow, methodical process.
It was also challenging, especially early in the season.
"You’re cold, it’s pouring, and then you add a 40-pound backpack on top of it. The best thing you can do is look at the mountains and remind yourself you’re very lucky to be doing it," she says.
Co-op jobs in Environmental Sciences
It wasn’t the first time Robertson has spent months in chest waders splashing through rivers and streams — although being dropped off in remote alpine locations by helicopter was a first.
Previously she’d taken a field job with the University in Northern Ontario helping graduate students with hydrology work in some of the murkiest rivers and swamps imaginable. Think bug nets all day, every day. They were looking into how watersheds change in response to fires, insect infestations, and logging. And yes, she ran into black bears.
Think about what job you will want in your fifth co-op term and figure out what kinds of jobs you need to get beforehand.
In another co-op term working with the government, she took what she’d learned in her ecotoxicology course (offered online during the pandemic) to test the best road salt by working with mussels.
She says all of these earlier experiences helped her get the dream Banff job, which leads to her a piece of advice for students wanting to land exciting Environmental Sciences co-op positions too.
"Think about what job you will want in your fifth co-op term and figure out what kinds of jobs you need to get beforehand," she says, explaining she even worked at the Royal Botanical Gardens outside Hamilton as a first step in high school. "I mean, I had great co-op jobs every time, but not all of them were flying in helicopters in the Rocky Mountains."