Open Your Mind: A Q&A with Andrew Medeiros, Arctic ecology researcher and geography professor

Andrew Medeiros
Andrew Medeiros

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, “Open Your Mind” is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practices. Their approaches, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, are charting new courses for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Andrew Medeiros, assistant professor of geography and an expert in Arctic ecology. His research on the evolution of northern ecosystems over the past 10,000 years allows for predictions and modelling of future responses to environmental change.

Andrew Medeiros
Andrew Medeiros

Q. Please describe your field of current research.

A. Water is a fundamental component of life, and yet our knowledge of northern ecosystems is limited by a lack of baseline knowledge of northern biogeochemical and hydrological processes. My research focuses on using biological, hydrological and geochemical indicators to examine the influence of environmental change on the quantity and quality of northern aquatic ecosystems; past, present and future. This is applied through the examination of gradients of ecological condition (climate change, ecological sustainability, anthropogenic disturbance) over large spatial and temporal scales. By understanding the evolution of northern ecosystems over the past 10,000 years, we can make more informed predictions and models of future responses to environmental change.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. Throughout my childhood I was always fascinated with the scientific world and the unknown aspects of the universe. I learned to read with a fairly non-standard collection of materials that ranged from Jim Henson and Dr. Seuss, to textbooks such as Rockets and Spacecraft of the World (which I still have on my office bookshelf). My fascination with all things science and exploration led me to the Arctic to examine ecosystems that very few people ever had before. Indeed, much of my PhD research was in an area the size of Sweden that had little to no prior research. Our knowledge of the natural trajectory of northern ecosystems is quite limited, which is a fundamental problem if you are trying to understand how these systems are changing due to recent environmental change. Indeed, our research group continues to document new species in new ranges that have changed the way in which we think of northern aquatic trophic systems.

Travels through the north take Medeiros to some interesting locations. Here he is pictured on the “Road to Nowhere” in Iqaluit

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. Since my research focuses on both issues of quantity and quality of freshwater resources, I am able to focus on both fundamental questions behind how northern aquatic systems function, as well as significant issues of water security for northern peoples. This is important to be able to identify, predict and plan for freshwater sustainability for northern communities, as well as understand how natural systems operated in the past, how they will respond to current disturbances, and how we can use this knowledge to predict future responses to environmental change.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. The framework of water security from a scientific perspective is fairly unique, as this topic is usually approached from a social and human geography perspective. My research combines these disciplines to examine issues of water quantity and quality applied to the natural environment, which is also inherently a significant component of northern people’s daily lives. By using biological, chemical,and hydrological indicators along gradients across multiple spatial and temporal scales, I can also examine projects with a much larger scope and context. Instead of a focusing on a single lake or stream, I can look at entire watersheds and how they will be influenced by disturbances across all scales. This allows for a focus on overarching factors that influence the direction of these systems and how they operate over time.

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. We have significantly expanded our knowledge of how aquatic systems are responding to environmental change in northern regions, however, the application of this knowledge to issues behind water quantity and quality for northern peoples has been a fundamental shift in how we apply this knowledge for current challenges facing northern communities. My students and I are able to conduct risk analysis for municipal water supplies and research areas of concern for local residents. Remote northern communities face a multitude of challenges in the face of environmental change and our research program allows for critical knowledge to be able to plan and adapt in the face of reduced water supply and concerns over water quality in the future.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you?

A. Since we examine biological indicators of environmental change, we are constantly identifying unique species in unique environments. Sometimes we are shocked at what we find when examining some pretty isolated lakes and streams. Yet, one of the most surprising discoveries was a fundamental shift in aquatic food-webs in northern Alaska. In a research trip in 2011 we discovered that several species of an aquatic midge were invading recently formed lakes and ponds. The spread of this aquatic invertebrate was so pervasive that tire ruts along the roads were dominated by these larval insects that were previously not found in the region. It signified the extent at which northern Alaskan ecosystems had fundamentally changed due to recent warming.

Andrew Medeiros displays the wriggly contents of a sample taken from a northern water source
Medeiros displays the wriggly contents of a sample taken from a northern water source. The bag contains a sample of the “Phantom Midge: Chaoborus”, which is not documented as having a range that extends to the Arctic.

Q. Every researcher, from novice to experienced, encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. Since we work in remote northern regions, it is always difficult to plan for logistical issues in the field. Bad weather, cancelled flights, fieldwork snafus and general equipment problems are always an issue. The most significant challenge for my research is actually just getting to our study sites from Toronto. The costs can be prohibitive and weather is unpredictable. There have been several occasions where our field equipment, students, or both, have gone missing for extended periods of time due to flight cancellations. One year we did not even make it to one of our field locations (Rankin Inlet, Nunavut) as the plane bypassed the community we were flying to six times in one day, hauling us back and forth between Iqaluit and Yellowknife. To add insult to injury, on our last attempt to make it to Rankin Inlet we were diverted to Edmonton due to mechanical problems on our plane. We never did end up making it there that particular year and our bags of equipment ended up in Mexico somehow…

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. I am teaching Six courses this year (2015-2016):

  • Geography 3200 – Terrestrial Ecosystems
  • Geography 4200 – Water Quality and Stream Ecosystems
  • Geography 3700 – Natural Disasters
  • Geography 3500 – Biogeography
  • Geography 3900 – Urban Ecology
  • Geography 2500 – Vegetation and Soils

I always bring aspects of my research and travels into my courses. I often have a “highly irrelevant Arctic example of the day” in my course on Urban Ecology. I also utilize samples we collect from across the circumpolar Arctic in my courses that have lab components that examine water quality issues. The students are exposed to a variety of practical research examples that are integrated into content.

Medeiros on the MacKenzie River with one of his students
Medeiros on the MacKenzie River with one of his students, Cait Carew, BSc Environmental Science

Q. You are currently appointed to the Department of Geography in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, yet your background is in biology. How are you bringing the two areas together in both your research and teaching practice?

A. My background is actually in biogeography, which looks at the distribution of species over space and time. This is reinforced in almost all of the courses I teach, so students are exposed to examples that cross disciplines, as my field is interdisciplinary.

Q. Your work is focused on the northern climates. How are you bringing your experience in the north into the classroom?

A. Many of my courses focus on northern systems, as the Arctic is often referred to as the “canary in the coal mine” for how our natural environment is responding to environmental change. Arctic ecosystems are extremely sensitive to small-scale changes in climate, which makes them good indicators of the response of the natural environment to warming.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown changed how I looked at history and my approach to life. It is a wide-ranging account of the story of Native Americans in the late 19th century. It is one of the reasons why I feel that working with First Nations and Inuit peoples is critical for science in northern regions. As we are conducting research in their home, we should respect the culture and traditions of the people who call these regions home. I am very much a proponent of working for and with northern peoples, and not simply flying around gathering knowledge without dissemination of that knowledge.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. I mostly read academic papers these days, but I do enjoy watching a variety of shows to take my mind off of things. Mostly Food Network these days, Master Chef, and Chopped are my current obsession.

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. I would have to say my wife, because I have had dinner with many people who are considered great for one reason or another, but none of them come close to her.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. Research of course!