Geography student wins northern research award

“It’s expensive doing research up there” in the High Arctic, says Elizabeth Miller. Flying all your equipment and four months’ worth of food and supplies costs thousands of dollars when you have to transfer three times en route from Toronto – via Ottawa, Iqaluit and Resolute – to get to Polar Bear Pass on Bathurst Island.

Research grants cover most of these expenses, but the geography graduate student welcomes the $15,000 she won as this year’s master’s-level recipient of the Garfield Weston Award for Northern Research. The money will help cover her tuition fees, books and living expenses. “It was definitely nice to get it.”

The award is one of many scholarships presented by the Canadian Northern Studies Trust on behalf of the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies.

     Right: Liz Miller on a dig

Miller is the second York geography graduate student to win it in two years. Last year, Anna Abnizova (BSc Spec. Hons. ’05, MSc ’07) was the doctoral-level recipient.

Both students are researching northern wetlands under the supervision of Arctic hydrologist Kathy Young, a geography professor in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

Last week, Miller returned to Toronto after three months studying the water flow of two hill streams that drain into the Polar Bear Pass wetland. It was her third trip to the North, her first to conduct her own research.

In the summer of 2009, Abnizova chose her as a field assistant to measure water levels, surface area and carbon fluxes in wetland ponds fed by snowmelt in this protected wildlife sanctuary.

Left: Liz Miller out ‘fishing’

Their research adds to a growing understanding of the effect of climate change on the North. Polar Bear Pass is an oasis of vegetation in the middle of a polar desert. Its plant life nourishes insects, migratory birds and mammals, from lemming and fox to muskox and caribou, not to mention the polar bears that migrate through this protected wildlife area. That plant life depends on the sustainability of the wetland ponds, on the snowmelt and water flow.

Miller’s love of nature began as a child growing up in rural New Brunswick. She helped her father garden and went on camping and hiking trips across Canada with her parents. Unsure what to study after high school in Toronto, she enrolled at York because the Environmental Science Program offered such variety. She could take biology, geography, ecology and conservation and learn about everything from soils and hydrology to plants and animals. Her first taste of the Arctic came after third year when she helped Professor Rick Bello measure carbon release from peatlands in Churchill, Manitoba.

Liz MillerBut, until Abnizova invited her to be a field assistant last year, Miller never imagined returning to the Arctic. For three years after earning a bachelor of science in 2006, she had hopped from one government contract to another. She still hasn’t narrowed her interest to a single field, but can boast a wealth of experience in conservation – assessing wetlands, mapping endangered-plant sites, doing surveys of red-shouldered hawks and forest inventories, evaluating the health of streams, restoring wetlands and planting trees.

Right: Liz Miller back home

This week, Miller climbed aboard yet another plane to see Europe for the first time. In three weeks, she’ll return to finish her master’s degree and then decide whether to do a doctorate. After witnessing the wildlife – caribou in particular – in Polar Bear Pass, she may branch into a broader investigation of the relationship between physical geography (land and water) and the biological community. “I like figuring out why plants grow where they grow and animals are where they are.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer

Above: Rifle-toting Liz Miller takes no chances in Polar Bear Pass