Viola Cohen



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What is your research focus, and why did you choose this area of study?

As a master’s student majoring in mathematics, I’m currently conducting interdisciplinary research on the intersection of machine learning and operations management. My research focuses on the applications of machine learning in service systems; particularly how textual data can be used to accurately predict customer wait times in service companies, or to improve scheduling appointments for telemedicine patients in health-care systems.

My work is driven my desire to enhance decision-making. My interest in this area stems from my curiosity about how machine learning can effectively enable service systems—and ultimately people—to make better decisions. What inspires me about this work is the potential consequences of my research on real-world problems facing both customers and business owners. In particular, our health and service systems.

Mohammad Mosaffa.

Why is your research relevant in today’s day and age?

Using statistical approaches to devise methods to improve performance through enhancing decision-making has potential for every industry. For instance, customer service is one of several industries moving online with the rise of digitization. In this space consumers achieving prompt and effective service depends heavily on accurate wait times to achieve consumer’s expectations. My research presents an innovative strategy, which will enhance wait time estimates by combining deep learning and text mining approaches to help boost customer satisfaction and loyalty. The findings could be applied for organizations in a range of sectors, including health care and e-commerce.

What’s the best advice you have for other students?

Throughout my time in higher education, I’ve become aware of the value of effort and a drive to learn. No matter your academic standing, my best advice to other students is to never stop exploring new opportunities and taking chances.

Remember, failure should not be feared. It’s an essential step in the learning process. If we never make mistakes, we might never really understand how far we can push ourselves. To this end, I urge students to take on difficult challenges. Also, seek out a mentor or a supportive group to help you. Having a mentor with expertise in your industry can help you advance your academic and professional goals through priceless counsel and connection.

I also want to stress the value of curiosity and passion. The decision to pursue higher education can be difficult and time-consuming, so it’s crucial to pick a subject that you’re passionate about. When you’re interested in what you’re learning, the task becomes less of a chore and more of an enjoyable exploration of new ideas.

“Having benefited from mentorship myself, I’m committed to effectively training students and hope to positively influence the next generation.”

Who is your mentor and how have they influenced you?

My current mentors, Dr. Amir Ardestani-Jaafari and Dr. Javad Tavakoli, have profoundly shaped my research focus and direction. Under their guidance, I’ve been able to refine my research interests and develop a deeper understanding of the applications of machine learning in operations management. Both men have challenged me to think critically and encouraged me to explore new approaches in my research.

Beyond guiding technical aspects of my research, they have also been supportive mentors in terms of my personal and professional growth. Both professors have been helped me navigate the challenges of research and grow as a researcher. Their expertise, guidance and support have not only helped me achieve my research goals but also inspired me to excellence in my academic and professional pursuits.

What do you hope to do after graduation?

Research is a driving passion for me. Going hand-in-hand with that is my passion for teaching. Having benefited from mentorship myself, I’m committed to effectively training students and hope to positively influence the next generation. My next step is pursuing a doctorate in business with Cornell University, where I hope to achieve my goal of becoming a professor who conducts meaningful research to help improve decision-making.

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AS A SCIENTIST, MELANIE DICKIE FIRMLY BELIEVES in the power of data to inform decisions. As a person, she enjoys spending time in the outdoors and is passionate about caring for the environment. The combination of these personal feelings and her scientific interest come together to inform her research career on the pathways that link human-caused landscape changes to caribou—a threatened species in Canada.

Dickie’s passion for preserving and restoring ecosystems in Canada’s north stemmed from fieldwork she undertook in Nunavut during her undergraduate degree.

“It was during that trip I fell in love with the idea of how humans and climate change impact ecosystems, and how these factors combine to influence the natural world we live in,” she says.

Following her undergraduate degree, Dickie completed a master’s degree at the University of Alberta and then moved into the not-for-profit sector with the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI). At ABMI, Dickie continued to dedicate her work to providing scientifically credible information to support land use and management decisions.

“Melanie has a knack for engaging with scientists, Indigenous communities and resource managers. She has excelled at cultivating an inclusive and curious environment within her research community.”

– Dr. Adam Ford

While working at ABMI, Dickie stayed closely connected to the academic world, attending conferences and interacting with researchers on social media platforms. One researcher that she found herself interacting with often was UBC Okanagan’s Dr. Adam Ford.

“I found myself and Dr. Ford on very similar threads on social media—threads about how humans are modifying the landscape, how data is used to support transparent decision making, and the role of Indigenous communities in the management of systems,” says Dickie.

A conversation at a conference eventually led to the development of Dickie’s doctoral research at UBC Okanagan. Dr. Ford’s experience working with different ecosystems and his focus on food webs presented a new way of approaching her research.

Melanie Dickie.

Dickie started her doctorate in biology at UBC Okanagan in 2020, under the supervisor of Dr. Ford in The Wildlife Restoration Ecology Lab (WiRE Lab). Through her PhD research, Dickie is exploring how human land use and climate intersect to influence the abundance of white-tailed deer. These animals are expanding deeper into caribou range where they were previously less abundant, and now act as a food source to bolster predator populations like wolves. This poses a threat to caribou, which do best in areas with low populations of predators.

Dickie’s research explores questions of what management interventions are available, how effective they are, and how they might be prioritized across the landscape to make the biggest impact for caribou. “Doing my PhD at UBC Okanagan has given me the room to push my research further,” she says. “I can research questions in broader ecological theory that can be used by decision makers.”

Dickie believes that research is about getting information to the right people and building relationships to ensure that information is used to make a difference. She hopes that her research will provide decision-makers with the tools they need to effectively manage caribou populations.

“Melanie has a knack for engaging with scientists, Indigenous communities and resource managers,” says Dr. Ford. “She has excelled at cultivating an inclusive and curious environment within her research community.”

Following the completion of her doctorate, Dickie sees herself working alongside academics, government and Indigenous communities for decades to come, continuing to reduce society’s effect on natural systems.

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The director of the UBC Wine Research Centre will likely enjoy his favorite vintage and think about the vines from which the grapes were grown. He follows that routine many days of the year, not just every April 22.

“Every day is Earth Day for us at the Wine Research Centre,” he says. “We’re always considering how we can better ensure a future for BC wines, especially in light of climate change.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the combined land and ocean temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.08 degrees Celsius per decade since 1880, but the average rate of increase since 1981 has been more than twice as fast, at 0.18 C per decade. In addition to rising temperatures, climate change has led to more severe storms across the globe, increased drought in already water-strapped regions and a warming, rising ocean.

It affects all aspects of our day-to-day lives, including transportation, energy production, the cost of living, and beyond. It’s not a problem for the future. Industries across the globe are absorbing real climate effects on their businesses now.

“The wine industry does not escape the rule. It’s also affected by the climate change challenge,” Dr. Pesme says. “Numerous factors affect the taste of wine, including growing climate, hours of sunlight, water levels, warmth and nutrients. It’s well-known that that climate has direct impact on the flavor of ripe grapes, positive in most cases, but dramatic when the climate is changing radically. Science shows that BC will be more regularly affected by intense climate episodes, extreme heat or early frost, for instance.”

To that end, the Centre is engaged in supporting the development of a competitive and sustainable BC wine industry through world-class research, excellence in wine education, practical solutions and knowledge mobilization.

“We have some of our team working on the effect of climate change on vineyards in BC, but also elsewhere in the world. They’re precisely measuring the evolution of our climate,” Dr. Pesme says. “We have other teams and researchers working on the effects of a climate hazard provoked by climate change. Take, for example, a wine region affected by wildfires. What effect will the smoke have on the grapes and then the taste of its wines?”

Precise data at the micro level is vital in the search for climate solutions.

The Centre leans into three pillars for its research: grapes, vineyards and soils; wine and fermentation, winery performance and sustainability; and, wine territory competitiveness. Study happens in the field (or the vineyards, in this case) and at three locations in Vancouver and Kelowna. The Centre’s Mass Spectrometry Core Facility can analyze fragrance and aroma compounds, flavonoids and anthocyanins (pigment) in fruit, as well as metabolite profiling of small molecules.

UBC also established a Wine Library in Vancouver with donations from dozens of BC wineries. The library collection was established in order to study which grape varietals do best in specific micro climates in BC, and to study the long-term aging abilities of those wines.

Finally, the Plant Growth Facility at UBC Okanagan is a state-of-the-art greenhouse that opened in September 2020. The 5,000-square-foot facility has computer-controlled light and temperature programs for large projects, and allows for isolation of different growth and treatment protocols.

“As the climate situation evolves, we need to nurture the knowledge of owners and staff at vineyards. A precise knowledge of what we call micro-climate situations, as well as soil studies, will help us better understand how climate change affects a particular wine territory,” Dr. Pesme says.

He says more detailed weather stations in the Okanagan and Vancouver Island where climate conditions may vary a lot within few hundred meters is an important next step. “There are already existing weather stations in BC; however, the information is not coordinated and shared by all the parties. This is an absolute need to grow grapes wisely, especially in the context of climate change.”

New innovations are emerging in response to the climate change challenge, and low-impact and knowledge-based wine making techniques that are studied at UBC and UBC Okanagan are being harnessed globally as part of the effort to mitigate impacts of a more extreme climate.

“Here in BC, around Okanagan Lake, there are approximately 80 varieties of vine. Climate change may spur winemakers to change grapes they grow, according to the evolution of the climate and the best combination of climate, type of soil and the Okanagan condition.”

Dr. Pesme uses the United Kingdom as an example of a region that has benefited recently from climate change with the emergence of a growing wine industry—sparkling wines in particular. The UK has always been an important and influential market for wines, predominantly imported. Nowadays, thanks to the climate’s evolution, there is a strong argument to support the development of a domestic wine sector, inspired by the Champagne region of France.

“The UBC Wine Research Centre wants to power vintners and grape growers with more and specific information to address climate change,” Dr. Pesme says, “because this is not just about wine. The world needs real solutions to extreme climate. We need better methods and knowledge in agriculture and production. The Wine Research Centre wants to contribute to those solutions.

“Our collective future depends on it.”

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FOR AN OLYMPIC TRIATHLETE AND A FIFTH-YEAR STARTER for UBC Okanagan women’s cross-country running team, Joanna Brown admits her athletic career started with a rather surprising purpose.

The Bachelor of Science major says she began running cross-country because it was a chance to get out of school.

“I got started in cross-country kind of by accident,” says Brown, who finished 15th in the mixed relay triathlon at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games. “I remember my best friend in elementary school attended cross-country meets, and I was always so jealous that she got to miss school for a day and go run.

“I remember asking in Grade 6 or 7 if I could go, too. That was my first cross-country race experience, and I was awful. But at the end of the day that paid me so much service.”

That’s for certain. She hasn’t stopped running, biking and swimming since, ultimately competing in two Olympic triathlon events. You might say UBCO owes that elementary school friend a thank you, too.

Joanna Brown competes in the cycling portion of the women’s triathlon during the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Credit: World Triathlon.

Brown joined the Heat from University of Guelph, where she represented the Gryphons on the USports All-Canadian Team three times. Accolades followed her to UBCO. She won the 2021-22 Canada West championship, and finished second overall in 2022-23. She helped UBCO to a pair of CanWest silver medals in the team event both her years at UBCO.

She was the Canada West Athlete of the Year, a second-team All-Canadian and won the Cross-Country Leadership and Community Service Award. The Heat finished fifth as a team at USports nationals, where Brown was eighth overall individually.

“Coming back to run for the Heat was honestly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. You have to balance school and training and relationships and do well at all of them,” she says. “There’s so many awesome ladies here we just need to celebrate each other. There’s more to come. There’s always more to come. There are no limits, and that’s a really exciting part about being a female athlete with the Heat.”

As accomplished a cross-country runner as she is, it was triathlon that took her to the Olympics. As a junior on Team Canada, Brown twice won bronze at International Triathlon Union Junior and Under-23 championships.

At the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, Brown again won bronze as an individual while helping Canada to a fourth-place finish in the team event. From Australia, she qualified for Tokyo, where she also competed in the women’s individual triathlon.

“I remember sitting down once with my triathlon coach, and he asked me what my goals were; what I wanted to accomplish. I said, ‘I’d really love to make the national team and go to the World Championships.’

Joanna Brown standing on a podium with two other female athletes - they all have medals around their necks

Canada’s Joanna Brown (right) poses with women’s triathlon gold medalist Flora Duffy of Bermuda and silver medalist Jessica Learmonth of England at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. Credit: British Triathlon.

“He said, ‘That’s not good enough. You have to want to win the Olympics.’ That was a massive switch in my brain. It was the first time I started to believe in myself that not only could I go to the Olympics, but I could place really well. Having that shift in mentality, that ability in sport, makes you really believe and work that much harder towards it. It becomes a focus.”

In Tokyo, Brown was teammates with Heat cross-country coach Malindi Elmore, who finished an astounding ninth in the women’s marathon in Tokyo. From that relationship Brown opted to spend her fifth and final year of USports eligibility with her teammate—and now new coach—in Kelowna while finishing her degree.

“Having Joanna join the team last year was such a huge plus,” Elmore says. “And not only the sense of performance, but just in what she brings in her leadership skills. Her energy creates a lot of momentum. We’re going to see the legacy of what she has brought in, hopefully, for years to come.”

Having an Olympian on the roster brings the whole team up a level, Elmore says, which is a role that Brown embraces. She’s happy to demonstrate to her Heat teammates that setting ambitious goals—be they athletic or academic—is the first step in realizing them.

“The Olympic Games is an entirely different experience,” she says. “Being in the Olympic Village and realizing you’re among the top one per cent of athletic humans in the world, it’s a pretty incredible feeling.

“Being on the start line in the Olympic Games, and knowing that as teenager I decided to commit however much time it required to getting there, it was an incredibly empowering feeling.”

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As an undergraduate student, what kind of research do you conduct and what inspired you to head down this path?

I’ve always dreamed of becoming a scientist. By the time I arrived at UBC Okanagan, I knew I was most excited about chemistry and biology, so that’s why I chose to major in biochemistry.

Over the last few years, I’ve been doing research on putative cell wall remodelling enzymes in the lab of Dr. Michael Deyholos. This work incorporates analytical methods I developed in Dr. Wesley Zandberg’s lab, related to the characterization of complex polysaccharides.

Here, Zandamela holds a capillary electrophoresis laser-induced fluorescence apparatus at the Zandberg Lab at UBC Okanagan.

What makes this specific research relevant?

Although people commonly associate carbohydrates with energy and nutrition, they have many other biological functions. For instance, if you take a walk outside you’ll see plants with cell walls composed of polysaccharides. Those polysaccharides make a dynamic barrier for interactions between plants, making their study relevant for agriculture, medicine and human physiology.

You’re the recipient of an International Community Achievement Award (ICAA), which recognizes international students who contribute to the UBCO campus and community while maintaining an excellent academic standing. What does it mean to you to be an ICAA recipient?

Winning the ICAA validates and encourages my love of learning. Alongside my great passion for research in biochemistry, I’ve always been intellectually curious, enjoyed learning about various topics and nurtured a great love for music. Receiving the ICAA meant being recognized for the entirety—rather than just a part—of my endeavours. This has emboldened me to continue embracing all of my inclinations as best as I can and allowing them to reinforce each other.

How do you balance school and home life?

I spend a lot of time on my academic work. Because I am drawn to academics, to me balance consists of interspersing my academic work with other things I am also drawn to, while also embracing the idea of taking time to rest. I love to compose music and improvise, so I try to make time for that. When the weather permits, I also like to mountain bike on nearby trails. Occasionally, I enjoy nice food and wine around the city and literature.

Do you have a mentor? If so, how have they influenced you?

Dr. Deyholos first gave me the opportunity to become an undergraduate researcher as soon as I started my studies—before I had any transcripts or experience—based solely on a conversation we had. His mentorship has been life- and career-defining, because in addition to setting me on my desired path, he has remained available and very supportive throughout my degree. Dr. Deyholos also introduced me to Dr. Zandberg, who I worked under for 31 months learning analytical chemistry. Dr. Zandberg heavily influenced my topic of interest—glycoscience—and more broadly reinforced my fascination for biomolecular structural elucidation. It was under his supervision that I wrote my two theses and won the Work Learn International Undergraduate Research Award, among others. Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Zandberg has encouraged me to have confidence in my abilities, pursue opportunities and continue with my music.

Zandamela playing the flute

Zandamela improvising on his flute at the Old Pond Trail at UBC Okanagan.

What do you think makes UBCO great?

I think our campus has lots of engagement and mentorship opportunities for all students, as well as incredible faculty. For instance, I was very fortunate to have the highly dedicated mentorship of Drs. Zandberg and Deyholos, with extensive access to undergraduate research opportunities. This has been the most impactful aspect of my education. I also really like the location and the quiet, pleasant environment of the Okanagan campus. I think getting involved on campus is a great way of nurturing one’s enthusiasm, skills, and wellbeing. It also increases the beauty of our surroundings.

What’s the best advice you have for new undergraduate students?

Be openly enthusiastic about the things you care about and your education, regardless of how that may be perceived.

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Tell us about your research—what do you do and why is it important?

One of the major threats to biodiversity is biological invasions. Put simply, plants and animals travel with us. As the world is increasingly interconnected, more and more species will reach places where they do not occur naturally. These species—called exotic or non-native—sometimes become invasive, ultimately displacing native species. This leads to simplified ecosystems and increased extinction risks of endangered species. Here in British Columbia, I aim to better understand the impacts of invasive species in riparian ecosystems, especially when they compound one another.

As a sidekick, I also explore how humans are currently distributed on islands. Do we behave like other plants and animals? Or do we show unique distributional patterns? My boldest long-term goal is to produce a general theory for the island biogeography of modern humans.

What inspires you about your work?

I have a profound love for nature and diversity—whatever form it takes—and so I feel the urge to contribute to protecting it from our own mistakes. Someone once said that whoever caused a problem cannot provide solutions as well. However, if not us, then who?

Dr. Fabio Mologni standing in front of a red pohutukawa tree in new zealand

Pōhutukawa trees in New Zealand sprout massive roots from their trunk and branches that just hang in the air until they find a surface to attach to. Pictured is Dr. Mologni with a very young pōhutukawa.

What are some challenges you’ve faced in your academic career so far?

First is the language barrier. This was, to me, the greatest challenge in achieving academic independence. It’s a daunting task to produce material at the highest level in a language that isn’t yours and with little formal education. It requires quite a lot of persistence. Halfway through my doctorate though, I began developing physical and mental symptoms consistent with the chronic illness fibromyalgia. I was officially diagnosed a few months ago. People say “the illness does not take a day of your life, but makes every day a struggle,” and I can relate to that. There is no cure and little medication available, except for a lot of light physical activity. I had to reorganize my whole life around that. It is not always easy to talk about chronic illness in the workplace and we desperately need to normalize these kinds of discussions.

What’s the best advice you can give students about career choices and schooling?

Be curious in everything that surrounds you. Take the opportunity to talk and learn from everybody and every situation. Experiment! Things don’t always go as planned; get it wrong sometimes. If you are a graduate student, make sure you pick a supervisor who shares the same passion as you for the subject you want to research. If you are a PhD, there is life after your doctorate, trust me.

Do you have any books you would suggest as must-reads?

We will need another set of questions for this one alone. I’ll narrow it down to five books I believe are useful in academia, at all levels. First is Atomic Habits by James Clear. It provides an excellent way to implement new habits in your routine, which can be summarized as “baby, consistent steps.”

Next is Managing your Mental Health During your PhD: A Survival Guide by Zoë Ayres. Student or staff, this is a must-read. It describes the challenges students might (or will eventually) face and how to manage multiple stressors. Most importantly, these obstacles are not restricted to students alone.

I suggest two books from Helen Sword, The Writer’s Diet and Stylish Academic Writing, both excellent for improving your academic writing skills.

Last but not least, I am currently reading Research is Ceremony, by Shawn Wilson. Any western academic should read it. It puts into question the very foundations of our research paradigms, suggesting there are other ways to produce knowledge and do science.

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WHILE THE SEARING HOT ASPHALT, DRIPPING AIR CONDITIONERS and withering plants might have caused many in Western Canada to look longingly at the region’s cool mountains during the historic heat dome in June 2021, even those seemingly frosty summits were starting to sweat.

It’s common to think of mountains as stationary features in a landscape, but as Dr. Lael Parrott points out, in their own longer time scales mountains are not constant, but constantly changing. With extreme events like 2021’s heat dome and the continuing effects of climate change, that change is becoming more visible.

Dr. Parrott is a Professor of Sustainability at UBC Okanagan and co-editor of the Alpine Club of Canada’s State of the Mountains report, an annual publication dedicated to drawing attention to changes in Canada’s alpine environments. Climate change has been a strong recurrent theme and this year’s report is no different, with the high temperatures from 2021’s heat dome causing far-reaching effects.

One of the most dramatic impacts was the flooding of the world-renowned Berg Lake Trail in Mount Robson Provincial Park. With the uninterrupted days of record-breaking heat in June, snow melt from the Robson Glacier flooded the Robson River’s banks, not only in the usual places but also in areas where the river hadn’t flooded before. By June 30, the worst of the heat dome was over, but half of the trail was under more than 50 centimetres of water. Other areas that weren’t flooded had significant cracks. BC Parks closed the trail and began supporting approximately 250 hikers as they made their way out.

Then, a massive thunderstorm hit on July 1. Hail and lightning exploded over the area, along with over 20 centimetres of rain in a six-hour period, which raised the river six metres. Over 50 hikers further up the trail needed to be evacuated by helicopter with the help of search-and-rescue teams.

A black and white photo of the glacier at Mount Robson in 1911

The Robson Glacier in 1911. Photo: A.O. Wheeler, courtesy of the Mountain Legacy Project and Library and Archives Canada.

A shot of Robson Glacier in 2011, which shows clear melting of the glacier since 1911

The Robson Glacier in 2011. Photo courtesy of the Mountain Legacy Project, School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria.

For the rest of the season, the Robson River kept shifting across the valley. BC Parks staff built temporary bridges but in days and even hours, these structures were washed out, while many of the usual bridges had only dry earth underneath. The Berg Lake Trail remained closed over the 2022 season and will take years to rebuild.

Rivers are often thought of as static landmarks on our human-made maps, but Dr. Parrott points out that the Robson River’s significant course change as it spilled across the valley is proof of how dynamic the landscape is—and how humans will need to learn to adapt.

Similarly, the report details how the heat dome crumbled the last hope of permanently preserving the Abbot Pass Refuge Cabin. The historic cabin, which was built by Swiss guides in 1922, sat at 2,925 metres above sea level in the Rocky Mountains, straddling the provincial border near Lake Louise. While work had begun in 2018 to address slope instability underneath the cabin as the permafrost thawed, the extreme heat in 2021 accelerated the process.

“That permafrost was like ice glue holding all the rocks together,” says Dr. Parrott.

Without that ice holding firm under the cabin’s foundation, the slope was too unstable for anchors to help permanently preserve the cabin as planned. The cabin’s masonry was also cracked. When the hut was taken down from the mountain for safety reasons in 2022, workers found enough cracks and failures to suggest the hut’s entire structure was compromised.

“Ice is melting everywhere, and exponentially faster,” says Dr. Parrott. The report notes that between 2011 and 2020, Western Canada’s glacier ice shrunk by 340 square kilometres per year, which is seven times faster than the rate of glacier loss from 1984–2010. This significant melt will dramatically impact not just the mountains but also freshwater habitats and downstream water availability.

Abott Pass Hut sitting precariously on the mountain, with the ground falling away beneath it

The exposed, steep and unstable north slope cutting away underneath the Abbot Pass Hut in 2021. Photo courtesy of Parks Canada.

Other highlights of the report, which is available online, include articles on the bison reintroduction program led by the Stoney Nakoda Nation, an exciting fossil discovery in the Mackenzie Mountains, drilling of a 327-metre deep ice core from the top of Mount Logan and the knowledge-sharing iNaturalist project where climbers can send alpine photos to experts.

The State of the Mountains report is now in its fifth year and has received international recognition from its 2022 nomination for the UIAA Mountain Protection Award. The report has often featured extreme events like the heat dome, including the effects of dramatic wildfires and avalanches, amid coverage of how changing temperatures or snow levels are affecting other living creatures like salmon and mountain goats.

Dr. Parrott says humans can expect extreme weather events to happen more and more often as the Earth warms and climate patterns that have persisted for thousands of years begin to shift.

“The lesson to us humans is to explore resilience, not in the sense of ‘build stronger, build bigger’ but in terms of how do we retreat and leave space for the mountains, for rivers, for the environment to be dynamic and to adapt to the kinds of changes that are occurring?”

*main photo courtesy of Natasha Ewing.

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AS BRENDAN DYCK SAT IN HIS INTRODUCTORY GEOLOGY COURSE as an undergraduate student, he couldn’t help but be fascinated by the questions boggling earth scientists, like why the polarity of Earth’s magnetic field reverses roughly every half million years.

“These unsolved problems of the discipline were really captivating because they were very tangible,” says Dr. Dyck, now an Assistant Professor in Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences at UBC Okanagan. “They seemed like questions we should know the answers to already. I thought, yes, I can make a difference there.”

Answering those longstanding questions is still what motivates him to get on his bike every day to ride to UBCO’s campus. Dr. Dyck’s passion for petrology, or the study of rocks, is far-reaching. He uses high-resolution electron microscopy to investigate how minuscule minerals and crystals react to stress in the Earth’s rocky crust. He also uses the same skills and thermodynamic equations to understand how planets outside of our solar system form and what their potential is to hold surface water. Much of his group’s current work in the Fipke Laboratory for Trace Element Research (FiLTER) is to understand how tectonic stress is related to metamorphic changes in rocks.

Though he loves being behind the microscope, Dr. Dyck is also drawn to fieldwork. Many of his field projects are set in the Canadian Arctic, where researchers fly in by helicopter, unpack their gear and then watch as the helicopter’s deafening whirr disappears over the rugged landscape.

“When the helicopter takes off, there’s this very calming hum as they’re away in the distance. Everything quiets right down, the animals and birds start making their noise again and then you feel like, okay, we finally made it.”

Dr. Brendan Dyck in the Austrian Alps, overlooking Hohe Tauern National Park.

For most trips, Dr. Dyck and his team canoe or hike to a specific outcrop to discover what records of change might be waiting there in the natural laboratory of the Earth’s crust. The real answers often come later as they investigate the samples gathered.

However, Dr. Dyck savours those surprising, in-the-field observations where he can hypothesize what his findings will be just by looking at the rock in his hand. In the summer of 2022, Dr. Dyck went on a field project to the Wopmay fault zone in the Northwest Territories to better understand earthquakes at depth. There in the field, he saw that the dark mafic rock his team found had more red garnet than suspected. The composition suggested that a rock from the continental plate had been under high pressure and potentially pushed 100 kilometres deep into the subduction zone before resurfacing thousands of years later during a period of high seismic activity.

“To find that at the surface is quite a rare thing, and no one had described it from this region.”

Dr. Dyck confirmed his field observation back in the lab with FiLTER’s electron microscope. He calls FiLTER and its advanced equipment “a beacon” for his decision to come to UBCO and is thrilled to be heavily involved in the state-of-the-art laboratory. UBCO’s stunning location in the Okanagan also allows him to explore the outdoors in his spare time, whether it’s biking the length of Kelowna to campus every day, mountain and gravel biking on weekends or downhill and cross-country skiing in the winter.

While his love of nature helped spark his interest in earth sciences, it also drives Dr. Dyck’s earnest enthusiasm for research involving the distribution of critical metals like lithium, which are crucial for transitioning to green energy. His passion for this and all his research is infectious. When asked about what research area he’s most excited about, he laughs.

“Everything,” says Dr. Dyck. “Everything I do.”

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