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Water fascinates award-winning graduate student

GRADUATE STUDENT AWARD WINNERS: PhD students Catherine Febria (left) and Bu Lam (right) are congratulated by Prof. John Coleman, Vice-Principal (Research & Graduate Studies). Photo by Edward Eng.

by Stephanie Kang

It’s surprising that PhD student Catherine Febria is not cold-blooded with gills and fins, having loved water ever since she can remember.

Febria is pursuing a PhD in aquatic ecology. She is one of two winners of a graduate student research award at U of T Scarborough, along with PhD student Bu Lam. (Click here for a profile of Bu Lam.) The recipients of the award are chosen by a selection committee composed of faculty, graduate students, and the Vice-Principal (Research & Graduate Studies).

Growing up in the Beaches area of Toronto, Febria has lived near water for much of her early life. Since her attraction to water is combined with a passion for travel, Febria says she loves her research — which centres on visits to various bodies of water around the world.

Febria explains that her research entails “the study of aquatic ecosystems, in particular food webs in ecosystems under stress.” She enjoys combining novel laboratory techniques with field studies, particularly the link between lab work and stream conservation around global issues. The interdisciplinary nature of the field is also appealing, she says. “When you’re looking at ecosystem processes, you need to look at not just the biological component but also at the geological and chemical components.”

For her PhD research, Febria specializes in “the smallest of the creepy-crawly things – bacteria and protozoans.” She examines stream biogeochemistry and the role played by multiple stressors on stream ecosystems. These stressors include “human actions, warming temperatures (including increased evapo-transporation), so the water cycle food web interactions are slowly changing because of these stressors,” she says.

Febria says she has studied everything “from ponds to groundwater to fringing coral reefs to streams to Arctic lakes.” Her first time snorkeling and seeing a coral reef happened in the Philippines when she was 12 years old. She has also visited seven of Canada’s ten provinces, as well as the Northwest Territories, Arizona, Cuba, Hawaii, Barbados, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.

She collaborates in research labs with Professors Dudley Williams, André Simpson, Ken Howard and Roberta Fulthorpe. Febria says she is aiming to understand how carbon changes from one season to the next, and tries to link these developments to the changes in the microbial community by using DNA fingerprinting techniques to measure biodiversity. She expresses interest in the carbon cycle and thinks her research is a direct way of linking the food web that she studies to bigger questions of global change.

She earned her undergraduate co-op degree in environmental science here. Another co-op work term brought her to a job with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

She is currently in her third year of the PhD program in biological sciences. Febria had been a tutor for eight years, a teaching assistant for five years, and recently a teaching assistant trainer at St. George campus. This term, she also worked as a course instructor, teaching an undergraduate biodiversity and biogeography class of 75 students. She has been active on the Graduate Students’ Association at Scarborough (GSAS) executive and a volunteer for the campus chapter of the Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program, a national outreach program that promotes science to young people.

Febria’s impressive résumé contains a long list of awards received over one hectic year. She is the recipient of: a Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada; an Ontario Graduate Scholarship; the Frederick P. Ide Award in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology; the President’s Award from the North American Benthological Society; and the GM Women in Science and Mathematics Award.

Prof. Dudley Williams, Febria’s supervisor, praises her as “a very progressive and energetic young woman who seeks out new experiences

and opportunities to interact with and guide others. Gifted as she is with a keen

intellect, communicative skills, and a wealth of hands-on experience, she is a fine role model.”

Febria expresses humility in receiving the 2007 graduate student research award, which includes $1,000 cash. When asked for her reaction, she replies: “I was surprised, just because there are a lot of active graduate students here at U of T Scarborough, so I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to win.”

Her favorite courses have involved field research, she says. She took a tropical marine biology course in Barbados and conducted research in Arizona and Costa Rica — all through U of T Scarborough. Febria says the undergraduate course in Barbados was “really cool because it was an excuse to spend my entire day in the water, while doing research on my very own project.”

Although Febria says she does not have a preference as to where in the world she’d most like to continue her research, she notes that she would love to go back to Palawan, an island in the Philippines in which she maintains strong family roots. She describes the island as home to some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world. “It’s so beautiful, and it’s one of these ecosystems that are on the fringe. Right now it’s protected but it could easily be destroyed because of development or climate change.” She would also love to revisit aquatic ecosystems of the arctic and the country’s west coast.

When deciding on graduate studies, Febria says she came to realize that working with Prof. Dudley Williams at U of T Scarborough was the right choice for her. “The department here is interdisciplinary, and I knew that there were people here with the tools for more advanced molecular techniques,”

Febria adds, “All educational experiences are what you make of them. The more you put into them, the more you get out of them.”

Stephanie Kang is a third-year English student at U of T Scarborough. She is currently doing a co-op placement in Marketing & Communications.

© University of Toronto Scarborough