When the NRC's Andrew Myles, Director of R&D, and Adam Bergren, Senior Research Officer, at the Nanotechnology Research Centre learned about the I-STEAM Pathways program, they instantly recognized a great opportunity to get involved.
"We have complimentary initiatives at the NRC," explains Myles. "But we saw a way to promote and support a fantastic Alberta initiative that already had credibility and trust with Indigenous students."
In 2022, Bergren seized the opportunity to mentor an I-STEAM student and could not wait to get more of his NRC colleagues involved. "It's critical that NRC researchers get involved in programs like I-STEAM because we are training the next-generation," says Bergren. "This is our best chance at tackling issues such as climate change and ensuring we are creating more inclusive environments. It's transformed the way I think about research."
This summer, thanks to the NRC's Indigenous Student Engagement pilot program, I-STEAM students had the chance to work on 5 different NRC projects. Plans to scale up are underway to make I-STEAM accessible to all 14 research centres across the NRC.
Kobe Currie: "I want to help First Nations communities in Alberta access clean drinking water."
Kobe Currie is a fourth-year English major at the University of Alberta. They worked with Andrew Myles on a remote water sensor that will allow real-time monitoring of toxins in bodies of water. Throughout their summer internship, Currie built relationships with Indigenous communities and leaders who could use the water sensors and provide feedback to the team. They also created social media content to get Indigenous youth inspired to become involved in land protection.
Ordinarily, as a Faculty of Arts student, Currie would not have had the opportunity to interact with researchers in a lab, and they initially did not see a role for themselves in STEM. "Being involved in I-STEAM has inspired me to pursue a career in communications, which is a path I didn't realize was open to me."
I-STEAM is not just about teaching students about STEM and environmental protection, it's also a great learning opportunity for NRC researchers. I-STEAM provides all researchers with training on current and historical issues facing Indigenous communities.
"Instead of a hierarchy of life with humans at the top, the Indigenous worldview is more circular," explains Myles. "That changed my whole perspective on environmental research. We're part of the air, water and land. So, environmental health is intrinsically connected to our own health."
Currie also taught Myles the importance of being a land keeper and the responsibility they feel as a steward of the land. "As a Cree person from Maskwacis Cree Nation, I feel it's my due diligence to give back to the land. I want to help First Nations communities in Alberta access clean drinking water."
Kai Ulrich: "The I-STEAM program helps you make connections with mentors who can provide guidance and champion you."
Kai Ulrich, a first-year University of Alberta psychology student, was mentored by Marla Desat, Technical Outreach Officer at the NRC's Construction Research Centre, and worked with the harmonization and special initiatives team. He worked on a policy research project looking at how to better connect, engage and communicate with Indigenous communities on building codes and climate change.
Ulrich also used his experience and upbringing to develop an Indigenous engagement strategy. "My family comes from Alberta Buffalo Lake Métis Nation and Onion Lake Cree Nation, and I was raised with a close connection to nature. My grandparents were conservationists. I provided the NRC team with clarity on Indigenous communities, different cultural ceremonies and how Indigenous communities think about the environment."
Like Currie, he also felt that I-STEAM opened up new career opportunities for him. "Working in a lab with a supervisor is not an experience you get as an undergraduate student. The I-STEAM program helps you make connections with mentors who can provide guidance and champion you if you choose to pursue graduate studies."
Jordan Eleniak: "I-STEAM is showing Indigenous students they can bring their knowledge to the sciences and then bring science and technology back to help their communities."
Growing up in Lac-La-Biche Métis Nation of Alberta Zone 1, Jordan Eleniak experienced first hand the impacts of contaminated water systems. "For as long as I remember, the lake I grew up around always had blue-green algae warnings. My people just wanted somewhere nearby to swim and fish that was not contaminated."
Eleniak, an engineering student at the University of Alberta, spent his summer working with Adam Bergren. He built and tested a biofuel cell for remote environmental monitoring. "I had the opportunity to fly to PEI and work with Environment and Climate Change Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to deploy the cell for a site they wanted to monitor."
Eleniak has always had a passion for the environment and technology. He never imagined he would achieve his goal of working in the environmental field in his first year of university. "When I started my program, my goal was to learn about sensors so I could eventually work in environmental protection. I-STEAM allowed me to realize that goal early in my career. I-STEAM is showing Indigenous students they can bring their knowledge to the sciences and then bring science and technology back to help their communities."
For these I-STEAM students, their summer of research wrapped up on Friday, August 25, 2023. That day, the students presented their poster presentations during the 2023 Celebration of Indigenous Summer Research, hosted by I-STEAM at the University of Alberta.