Science Horizons intern: Azim Shariff

At high school in Vancouver, Azim Shariff was an ace student in chemistry, mathematics and physics. Biology was tougher for him, but it intrigued him the most. Born in Richmond, BC, and raised in the Metro Vancouver area, Azim’s weekly visits as a teenager to Vancouver’s Science World bolstered his biology bias.

“Biology is mostly Big Picture,” says Azim, who after completing a BSc at Simon Fraser University interned as an avian researcher at Vancouver’s WildResearch Society. “I wanted to understand how the human body works, how organs and cells work.”

With the internship funded by Environment Canada’s Science Horizons Internship Program, his work for the conservation organization dealt with the collection of data on insect-eating nocturnal birds of the nightjar family. These included the Common Nighthawk and the Common Poorwill. The Common Nighthawk is listed as a “threatened” on Canada’s Species at Risk Public Registry. The Common Poorwill was assessed as “data-deficient” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Science Horizons internship funding allowed WildResearch, a small non-profit organization, to hire Azim for his work on the nightjar survey.  Elly Knight, who managed the program, says “the funding made it possible to run the citizen science program in 2015 as well as giving Azim the opportunity to work with ‘citizen scientists’ and collect field data for nightjar conservation.” Citizen scientists are members of the general public who volunteer to do research to assist scientific studies.

Azim Shariff measures a bird

Azim brought scientific understanding, experience in data collection and bird identification to the project, says Knight. “He also brought strong interpersonal skills which helped build positive relationships with our citizen science community.” He co-ordinated 125 volunteers, many of whom were lifelong bird watchers, to collect and report data. He hosted orientation sessions in several towns and cities in British Columbia, did field work and analyzed the data amassed. Audio recordings of the birds were collected in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. These bird vocalizations - which are very distinctive -- are being studied by scientists at the University of Alberta to determine if calls signal messages about breeding, courtship or feeding. “Nightjars are not a well-studied species,” says Azim. The birds nest in open areas such as recently harvested forests, burned out areas and wetlands. The decline in their populations may be attributed to habitat loss, fewer insects to eat, pesticide use, tree planting and firefighting. The massive Fort McMurray forest fire in 2016 and industrial clear-cuts are actually good for nighthawks who prefer nesting in new vegetation rather than old-growth forests.

The funding made it possible for us to run the citizen science program in 2015 as well as give Azim the opportunity to work with citizen scientists and collect field data for nightjar conservation. He brought strong interpersonal skills to the project, which helped him build positive relationships with our citizen science community.

- Elly Knight, WildResearch Nightjar Survey Program Manager

Azim’s parents emigrated to Canada from Fiji at different times and were united in an arranged marriage. His father, who did not go to secondary school, is a mechanic and his mother is an electrician. Family members show a knack for science. One of his Canadian cousins teaches kinesiology and another is a PhD student in clinical neuropsychology. At university, Azim took biology. At first he intended to study medicine but instead switched to ecology, inspired by an animal ecology class he took in third year at Simon Fraser. His professor, avian biologist David Green, told the class about his doctoral research in Indonesia that included photographing a previously undescribed mammal. It looked like a cross between a lemur and a raccoon. “It was so much cooler than working in a lab,” says Azim, who has since discovered just how much he enjoys field work. Azim is now taking a second degree in ecological restoration at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. On completion, he plans to pursue a Master’s degree in biology. In the meantime, he continues to work for WildResearch as a volunteer and is the program manager for a bird-banding station at the Iona Island Bird Observatory north of the Vancouver airport. Azim says that he learned about statistical programs, data analyses, Geographic Information Systems and time management. But most important to him was learning how to solve unexpected problems. “This internship helped me determine the area in which I aspire to work as well as what it is like working in conservation biology,” he says. “I know that I would be much happier working in the field and this matches my skills quite well.”

The terms “Citizen Scientists” and “Citizen Science” are comparatively new. The Oxford English Dictionary only added the terms in 2014. However, the practice of using volunteers to amass data isn’t new. The Audubon Society has been collecting data from volunteer bird-watchers for more than 100 years. This method of collecting data is also widely used in astronomy. The Oxford Dictionary defines “citizen science” as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.” However, citizen science is challenged by some scientists who are worried about the accuracy of data collected by amateurs. One concern is the level of training in research and monitoring methods. Another consideration is volunteer bias.

“Everyone is concerned about the accuracy of data collected this way,” says Azim Shariff, who co-ordinated volunteers for Vancouver’s WildResearch Society’s nightjar survey in 2015. “While annual bird counts are useful, some birdwatchers might pay more attention to rare species rather than common species.” This bias could skew the findings. Well written and easily understandable observation protocols are needed to ensure the accuracy of the data, he says.

Citizen science is especially appropriate for bird research because many volunteers are lifelong birdwatchers who are good at identifying birds. However, technically complex science projects may present too many challenges. “One of the most important parts of conservation biology work going forward is the ability to communicate scientific research and protocols to the public as well as manage volunteers,” says Azim. “Funding for all projects isn’t available in the amounts one would require to hire professionals for every task.” The annual nightjar survey has expanded and is now conducted in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Yukon and Northwest Territories as well as New Brunswick.

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