By Alyana Versolatto

Graduate Recruitment Officer

Dr. Tyler Hampton, who recently completed his PhD in Earth Sciences (Water), is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo. Before beginning his graduate studies within the Faculty of Science, Dr. Hampton completed his master’s at Michigan State University, where his research focused on nitrogen and the nitrogen cycle concerning modern environmental problems like agricultural pollution. When it came time to apply to a doctoral program, he was recruited to Waterloo because of his desire to take his knowledge of biogeochemistry and apply it to study wildfires and forest harvesting. With his PhD research, he sought to create a broad global synthesis of what kind of changes occur to water quality after these conditions.

With this year being the worst on record for wildfires, poor air quality has been top of mind for many Canadians, but water quality may have been overlooked. Based on your research, how do large wildfires affect drinking water supply?

After mega-fires, we often see increases in concentrations of nutrients like carbon, phosphorus, and nitrogen in streams. Materials like ash, burnt vegetation, and eroded soil can enter streams, and accompanying nutrients can alter the biologic communities in streams and fuel the growth of algae in streams and reservoirs. From the perspective of drinking water treatment, organic material like dissolved carbon, algae, and sediments need to be removed so that other critical water treatment steps like disinfection can proceed. Increased amounts of carbon, algae, and sediments in water prompts engineers to add more chemicals to remove them. More chemicals used in treatment costs more money.

So, my research focused on these relatively benign compounds in water – as a biogeochemist I’m interested in the cycling of nutrients in streams – but the human impact after fire can be intense financial strain on communities.

The areas most affected by fires this year have been smaller rural communities in northern Ontario, Alberta, Quebec and British Columbia, and these fires can put additional stress on treatment plants and community resources. An article with some of my colleagues touched on this issue earlier this month.

What drew you to apply to be a PhD student in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Waterloo?

First, the University has a global reputation that's very respected and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences is known for conducting fantastic groundwater science. Second, I feel like in the modern day of graduate studies, most people who are trying to pursue science don't necessarily choose a university or a department, they choose a supervisor, and I really wanted to work with Dr. Nandita Basu, who is internationally renowned in the fields of water sustainability and ecohydrology. Once I visited campus, I also found out about the Water Institute, which is ranked among the top institutions for interdisciplinary water research in the world.

Another unique part of my PhD was being part of the forWater: NSERC Network for Forested Drinking Water Source Protection Technologies. I was flown out to Calgary, Alberta, at the start of my degree and the diversity of people in the network that I met with was incredible – including foresters, forest biologists, water quality scientists, drinking water engineers, and city staff who manage the reservoirs. After that visit, I knew this was where I wanted to be. Conversations among researchers, engineers, and communities like this must happen if we want to solve environmental issues.

What was the working relationship like with your supervisor?

It’s been a real privilege to work with Dr. Nandita Basu, and I’m not surprised that she received the Award of Excellence in Graduate Supervision a couple of years ago. Even with a large lab group, Dr. Basu has been a fantastic supervisor still providing individual meetings and giving attention to my research.

After completing your PhD, you began a new role as a postdoctoral fellow at Waterloo. What is different about your new role?

In July 2023 I started as a postdoctoral fellow, and to be honest, my day-to-day feels very much like a year ago when I was in my PhD doing research with the goal of publications. A difference now is I'm teaching a course on data management that has not been taught before. The course came to be after discussing with colleagues in the department about the skills that graduate students need to succeed. We all agreed that effective data management is important to ensure science is built on a solid foundation.

Dr. Tyler Hampton

Dr. Tyler Hampton (he/him)
PhD ’23, Postdoctoral Fellow, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Lost Creek Fire

The "burn scar" from the 2003 Lost Creek Fire in Alberta.