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Navya Vikraman Nair: Conducting graduate research

Introducing Navya

Profile of NavyaNavya began her PhD journey in Sustainability Management (Water) through the Faculty of Environment at Waterloo in September 2021. Prior to this, she obtained a Master of Technology in Environmental Engineering and a Bachelor of Technology in Civil Engineering at the University of Kerala, India. Navya is deeply passionate about sustainable development and environmental issues. She is a 2023 SSHRC Storytelling Challenge Finalist for her work on Coastal Wetlands for Viable Small-Scale Fisheries and received scholarship to the Student Energy Summit 2023 in Abu Dhabi. Navya also acted as the University of Waterloo-Water Institute Representative at the 2023 UN World Water Conference.

Conducting Graduate Research

Navya’s research delves into the intricate connections between blue carbon ecosystems, particularly seagrass meadows, and water quality in coastal wetlands. Conducting comprehensive seagrass mapping in Chilika Lagoon, India, she conducts fieldwork and spatial analysis. She measures water quality parameters, including salinity, temperature, and nutrient levels to assess the impacts on small-scale fisheries. To get a holistic understanding, her research engages a multidisciplinary approach that focuses both on ecological assessments and community engagement.

For Navya, the level of depth and independence required during her PhD candidacy has been surprising compared to undergraduate research, “The autonomy to shape the research direction has been both empowering and demanding. […] Unlike undergraduate research, where tasks are often more guided, here, the onus is on us to shape the trajectory of our research.” While this freedom has been challenging for her, it has also been invigorating, pushing her to develop strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

As an international student, conducting research at Waterloo has been an enlightening cultural experience for Navya, but with this there have been other challenges while conducting research. Language barriers and navigating cultural differences complicated her ability to engage the community during her fieldwork. To proactively address this, Navya worked with language support services such as cultural immersion programs in the region, local associations and community members  and collaborated closely with local partners to better her communication and understanding. She says, “It has not only broadened my academic horizons but has also provided a platform to actively advocate for the needs of international students. The supportive community, coupled with cutting-edge research facilities, has created a conductive environment for academic and personal growth.”

There were also some weather-related challenges during her international fieldwork, especially in remote coastal areas, “Unforeseen weather conditions and limited accessibility posed some hurdles. To address these, meticulous planning, contingency measures, and close collaboration with local communities became crucial. Adapting research methods to suit unpredictable circumstances and maintaining open communication with stakeholders have been key strategies to overcome challenges”.

Excelling at research is not just about doing the lab or field work, but also about disseminating and sharing the research being conducted, and Navya has taken every opportunity Waterloo offered. The recognition as a SSHRC Storytelling Challenge Finalist and GRADflix Finalist, and the opportunity to represent the university at international conferences like the UN World Conference and the Student Energy Summit have been significant milestones for her. Navya says, “These experiences helped to sharpen my artistic skills and taught me how to communicate my research to non-technical audiences. My experiences at Waterloo have been transformative. Through my experiences, I’ve gained not only technical skills but also valuable insights into community dynamics and the importance of integrating local knowledge into research.”

Advice for other students

Navya found that Waterloo resources, along with networking opportunities, have been instrumental in refining her research skills, “For fellow graduate students, I highly recommend taking advantage of the diverse range of workshops and seminars offered at Waterloo such as qualitative methodology workshops on R language, how to do literature reviews and so on. Embracing collaboration and seeking mentorship from experienced researchers has been invaluable in navigating the complexities of graduate-level work.”

Navya also highly recommends leveraging the interdisciplinary research community, “For me, SWIGS [Society of the Water Institute Graduate Students] and Water Institute was an essential part of my life due to my engineering background. Maintaining a proactive approach to learning new methodologies and staying updated on emerging technologies in the field have enhanced the depth and quality of my research. My Professor Prateep Nayak’s emphasis on global engagement has also exposed me to diverse perspectives, enriching my research and preparing me to address complex challenges.” Navya encourages others to seize their individual challenges and opportunities, “It has made my journey at Waterloo incredibly rewarding”.