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SRES and Mitacs make a productive team

Posted by Miriam Breslow on July 5, 2016 in News
SRES student Mhari Larmarque on an internship with Ducks Unlimited Canada

Dr. Kate Sherren and her colleagues in the School for Resource and Environmental Studies always make sure their master’s students learn early about Mitacs. “It’s a marvelous opportunity to do applied research and to interest potential employers,” says Sherren. A non-profit organization that partners universities with industry and non-profit organizations, Mitacs has been supporting SRES students for several years. The benefits are substantial: “As our internship students approach people for jobs, smaller organizations in particular, it’s a differentiator that gives them an edge on other students,” says Sherren. “They can say, ‘You don’t have to fully fund me for the summer; there is a program that shares the cost.’” Mitacs contributes $7,500 for each four-month internship, while the host organization contributes the same. Students whose master’s degrees involve a thesis rather than an internship also work with Mitacs on research that is relevant to industry.

Because Mitacs requires students to spend at least half of their internship physically in the host organization, students get hands-on experience. Sherren has supervised three students in the past two years on Mitacs internships. One student at Strum Consulting investigated the effects of wind turbines on wildlife; another worked on sustainability reporting for Clearwater Seafoods.

Sherren notes that applying for Mitacs internships teaches students important skills for their academic and professional futures. “For students, especially those who aren’t in a thesis-based program, the process of learning to write a grant application and having it reviewed by experts—sometimes with multiple revisions—is very developmental,” she explains. “After all, many environmental groups run off grant funding.” A member of Mitacs’ College of Reviewers, Sherren has seen both sides of this process, and emphasizes Mitacs’ supportive nature.

Mitacs was created as a Network of Centres of Excellence in 1999, says Brennan Gillis, Director of Business Development for Nova Scotia. With researchers leaving Canada and graduate enrolment declining, “Mitacs was created to promote mathematics as a tool for industrial development and to provide opportunities for graduates.” The organization, funded by federal and provincial governments and partner universities, has since expanded: “We now provide research internships for graduate students and postdocs in all disciplines,” says Gillis. His job entails encouraging organizations to leverage the expertise of students and helping with the application process. “I pop into SRES classes every semester to promote Mitacs and provide some advice to students on offering their skills to industry,” he says. “It’s helpful that the students have a Mitacs support person to echo the benefits of using graduate students and explain our mandate to industry.” Gillis cites a high satisfaction rate from participating partner organizations.

Mitacs’ partners for most of its existence have been almost exclusively businesses. In February 2015, though, Mitacs opened its services to non-profit groups. “Some organizations had expressed interest in the past, but weren’t eligible because they weren’t, or didn’t have, a typical private industry partner,” says Gillis. “We now have greater flexibility to work with organizations that still offer great research and interaction opportunities for grad students and postdocs.”

One such group is Ducks Unlimited Canada. They approached Sherren after a speaking engagement last year. “Conservation groups have realized that social sciences can be useful,” notes Sherren, “but they don’t have the in-house capacity, so they asked me if I could help. And they said to me right then, ‘we are eligible for Mitacs.’” Sherren had recently taught a student she thought would be a good fit, and took the opportunity to her. Mhari Lamarque, a then first-year Master of Resource and Environmental Management student with an interest in environmental education, is now interning with DUC.

“Though my experience with wetland conservation is limited,” says Lamarque, “the core values of DUC’s education initiatives are in line with much of the work I have done—getting people out in nature and offering experiential learning opportunities.” Lamarque explains that as DUC faces funding difficulties and declining and older supporters, “the organization is trying to better understand their existing supporter base as well as attract more diverse audiences.” She is researching youth engagement with DUC as well as the effectiveness of their programming. “The aim is that these projects will inform and guide future decision making.”

Sherren sees Lamarque’s project as a great example of the benefits of Mitacs opening up to non-profit organizations. “It’s very positive for SRES,” she says. “We wouldn’t get Mitacs to fund Mhari digging new wetlands; eligible projects have to have some sort of business process or efficiency angle to them. To give another example, conserving an endangered species could create a tourism opportunity, so your host organization could be a tourism bureau, instead of a conservation organization.”

Lamarque, who would love to work with Nova Scotia environmental NGOs when she graduates, says the application process was especially helpful. “It helped me flesh out important details and processes that I will use throughout my research, and the reviewers gave me great insight,” she says. Lamarque hopes to continue building connections with the Mitacs community.

 “The SRES students are a keen group,” notes Gillis. “There are many companies seeing more value in corporate social responsibility, environmental impact, etc., and these students have a variety of skills that can help industry with meeting research objectives.” He credits SRES’s engaged faculty and staff with driving opportunities for students.

Sherren agrees on the benefits. “Some students can get jobs outright, but when the job market is as competitive as it is, this is the tipping point that can get students critical experience,” she says. “And it builds SRES’s relationships with outside organizations—we have repeat customers like Clearwater. Finally, it’s a tipping point for the organizations: they can do work that they otherwise don’t have time, resources or expertise to do.”

Other recent Mitacs/SRES projects include:

MREM (course-based program with internship/co-op)

  • Carolyn Stevens (Summer 2015)
  • Academic Advisor – Kate Sherren
  • Industry Partner – Clearwater Seafoods
  • Meagan Bernier (Summer 2015)
  • Academic Advisor – Kate Sherren
  • Industry Partner – Strum Consulting
  • Sarah Rosenblat (Summer 2015)
  • Academic Advisor – Peter Tyedmers
  • Industry Partner – Thinkwell Shift
  • Melissa Archibald (Summer 2014) (dual degree recipient MREM/MLIS)
  • Academic Advisor – Peter Tyedmers
  • Industry Partner – Clearwater Seafoods

MES (Thesis-based Program)

  • Brittany MacDonald
  • Academic Co-Supervisors – Michelle Adams and Ken Oaks at CBU
  • Industry Partner – Port Hawkesbury Paper