Program prepares students for workforce in environmental science, industry

UAlberta and McGill partnership to train next generation of problem solvers in environmental sciences, policy and resource extraction.


(Edmonton) A new partnership between the University of Alberta and McGill University will give graduate students the knowledge and skills they need to become problem-solvers in environmental science and industry.

The U of A and McGill received $1.6 million over six years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to create a multidisciplinary graduate training program that helps students acquire the personal, scientific and professional skills to become the next generation of natural resource consultants, managers, land-use planners and policy makers.

The program builds upon the U of A’s excellence in environmental teaching and research, while giving students hands-on experience working with industry, government and local communities, including First Nations, says Stan Boutin, Alberta Biodiversity Conservation Chair at the U of A.

“The students we produce have an excellent foundation in environmental sciences, but by exposing them to the day-to-day realities of industry and policy makers who manage our resources and environment, they will be better prepared for the workforce in positions other than conventional academic positions,” says Boutin, a professor in the Faculty of Science. “They will become far more valuable from an industry and societal viewpoint.”

The funding was part of $14.8 million for nine training programs, including two involving U of A researchers, announced May 16 by Ed Holder, minister of state for science and technology, through NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) initiative. Heather Bruce, meat science researcher in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science, also received a $1.6-million NSERC CREATE grant to support her Canadian Meat Education and Training Network (MEaTnet) for assuring meat safety and quality.

The U of A-McGill partnership is being led by McGill’s Murray Humphries, an associate professor of wildlife biology. Boutin is leading efforts at the U of A with Erin Bayne, Mark Boyce and Evelyn Merrill with the Department of Biological Sciences, and Mark Lewis from biological sciences and the Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

The collaboration will also draw on wide expertise, including the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute at the U of A, energy economist Andrew Leach, industry partners such as Suncor Energy and ConocoPhillips Canada, and provincial and federal agencies in resource development and environmental management.

Training students for seamless entry into workforce

The CREATE funding will allow both institutions to provide “value-added” training for more than 60 master’s and PhD students and post-doctoral fellows. Boutin says this involves training in five skill areas beyond existing thesis-based graduate research.

One of those areas will help students understand the perspectives of government and industry—an “eye-opener” course to understand the issues involved in resource extraction and enforcement of environmental regulations and policy. They will also spend two three-month internships working in industry and government—helping students “seamlessly” transition into the workforce and reducing the amount of on-the-job training by consulting firms and resource companies, Boutin says.

“One of the fundamental things I’ve always felt is the majority of students who come through our programs have a strong conservation ethic in their mind, which is great, but that ethic is also somewhat biased against industry,” he says. “We want to expose students to a broader set of issues and perspectives.”

Boyce, the Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife at the U of A, focuses on population ecology and managing resource expansion and wildlife. He’s currently studying the impact of industrial development on wolverine populations in northwestern Alberta, work that requires collaboration with industry and the local Dene Tha First Nation.

“CREATE represents an exciting opportunity to better engage their young people in our project and facilitate some opportunities for our graduate students to work on the courses and gain valuable experience in the field,” he says.

Partnering with McGill leverages the considerable strengths and talent at both institutions in applied ecosystem and resource management, Boutin says, as well as existing relationships with government, First Nations communities and industries such as forestry, oil and gas, and the oilsands. Funding ends after six years, but the goal will be to continue well beyond that after proving its value to all partners, he added.

“We want this program to be the go-to place where industry recruits students.”

Read the NSERC news release