Mentoring for Success
Published26 August, 2021
Photo credit Alia Youssef
New student research opportunities at Capilano University are creating transformative, hands-on learning experiences for students like Harrison Smith.
A mentor can open up a world of possibilities and even change a student’s life path.
Harrison Smith experienced this first hand. He came to Capilano U intending to earn his nursing prerequisites, but fell in love with biology because of faculty mentors like renowned evolutionary ecologist Dr. Tom Flower.
The two recently collaborated on a research project, which has given Smith an invaluable learning experience.
Smith first met Flower during a biology class trip to Bamfield Marine Station. Flower was helping another CapU instructor lead the trip.
“Tom has a lot of field experience all over the world,” Smith said. “He’s an ornithologist at heart, and it was really easy to talk to him.”
Flower has conducted extensive research in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, where he studied both cooperation in meerkat societies and the deceptive tricks of fork-tailed birds called drongos.
When Smith expressed an interest in fieldwork, Flower suggested a joint research project to measure the health of North Vancouver’s Maplewood Flats wetlands, which is undergoing ecological restoration. The University funds dozens of student research associate positions each year and Smith jumped at the opportunity to learn from an expert.
While there were numerous excellent candidates for the role, Flower said Smith had “shown leadership and commitment to learning, as well as a capacity for independent and explorative work.”
The research would focus on aquatic invertebrates, including dragonflies, mayflies and midges, which are critical for the health of terrestrial ecosystems when they emerge from the water in their adult winged form. Each species has a specific tolerance for pollution, so by collecting, identifying and counting the insects in the area, they can gauge the health of the wetland, create a baseline for future studies and advise on current management.
In the spring of 2020, the two collaborated on the project proposal, research goals and methodologies, and a funding application for a student research associate position for Smith.
One of their first challenges was to create an index of biological integrity for wetlands appropriate to the area. Smith says scientists often focus on intertidal zones and rivers, while wetlands get lost in the mix. Wetlands are vital regulators of local and global climate. They developed their index by looking at models for rivers and American wetlands.
A good mentor knows when to coach and when to let the mentee try their hand. When it was time for the fieldwork to begin, Flower joined Smith for the first day of collecting samples with a fine mesh dipnet, sorting and counting all the insects, and then returning them to their original wetland as quickly as possible. When he saw that Smith was comfortable with the work, he let his student run with it for the rest of the summer.
“Tom understood that I wanted some independence during the fieldwork,” Smith said. “We developed the project together and he trusted my ability to do it. He would check in to see if everything was going well, and help resolve any issues that came up. He was an awesome resource to have.”
When the fieldwork was complete, they reconvened to analyze the results and write up the report.
“We were bouncing drafts back and forth,” Smith recalled. “Tom sent me a rough outline of what he wanted and I filled it in, then he’d provide comments.”
Flower enjoyed collaborating with Smith on the project.
“He was terrific at taking feedback and using it to improve the project. Having a student with whom I can develop a good working relationship is invaluable. I can address questions I’m keen to see answered, while continuing my other work responsibilities and using my experience to guide Harrison as he learns how to plan, implement and communicate a project.”
Their goal is to get the report published in an academic journal. For now, it’s available at Wild Bird Trust, the organization that manages the Maplewood Flats wetlands. They are also working on a second grant proposal for the wetlands.
Smith will finish his Associate of Arts degree in Biology this year. He’s planning to take time off before returning to complete Capilano U’s new Bachelor of Science – General degree, which launches in September 2022. The new degree will offer concentrations in biomedical sciences, computational sciences and environmental sciences.
He is grateful for the experience working on the Maplewood Flats project, which gave him a more holistic understanding of how research projects work and how all the resources come together.
“I’m interested in conservation and resource management, so a project like this helps me build a baseline of where I want to go next,” Smith said. “I feel like this experience has expanded my worldview and that there’s so much more to learn than just the academic side. What I’ve learned is so valuable.”