Science Horizons intern: Chandra Rodgers

“I could fish before I could walk,” jokes Chandra Rodgers on a sunny winter’s day in Winnipeg. Appropriately, she is now a fisheries population biologist with the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA). Raised in Barrie, Ont., she has fond memories of long summer days in Honey Harbour on Georgian Bay spent swimming, rock climbing, trolling for tadpoles and salting leeches off her hands. “I’d pick up anything that moved,” she says.

Chandra had a great deal of field experience from her MSc studies at Western, and also some very good project management skills (both from her Graduate work as well as from her work in the Caribbean). From the get go, Chandra was exceptionally driven and made it very clear how she could make an essential component of our team. She has brought a lot to our program both technically and personally, and we’re so lucky to have her. 

- Michael Rennie, Canada Research Chair in Freshwater Ecology and Fisheries; Assistant Professor, Department of Biology, Lakehead University

In 2014, Chandra was hired by IISD-ELA through an Eco Canada Environmental Youth Corps Internship Program funded by Environment Canada’s Science Horizons program. Now a full-time employee, she works in IISD’s Winnipeg office during the winter months but spends most of her time at ELA’s remote research station in northwestern Ontario close to the Manitoba border.

For her research on fish populations and behaviour, Chandra needs to catch, tag and release fish in ELA’s pristine waters. She works on all types of fish species, from small-bodied fish, such as minnows, to large-bodied fish, such as lake trout and pike. Most fish are captured in nets but the larger ones are often line-caught. Chandra says she’s thankful that her father taught her early on how to remove a fish from a hook.

Chandra Rodgers
Chandra graduated with a Master’s degree in biology from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. Her graduate adviser, Dr. Bryan Neff, proposed a field study project on the effects of hormones on the reproductive behaviour of bluegill sunfish -- a plump and attractive freshwater fish and one she well remembered snagging on fishing rods as a child. Her research, published in 2012, showed that different concentrations of male fish hormones, such as testosterone, affect how they protect and nurture their young.

After graduation, Chandra found that jobs in her beloved field were few and far between. “I came out of university very excited and optimistic, a naïve little bunny keen to get a job right away,” she says. Most positions for fish biologists required two-to-five years of work experience, something she didn’t have. When it proved hard to get that first job in Canada she moved to the Caribbean to work for a small non-governmental organization. There she was involved in a variety of projects, including tagging sea turtles, surveying marine protected areas and developing a water quality monitoring program for Union Island, St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Missing her family, she returned to Canada where she was hired as an accounting clerk at a real estate agency in Burlington, Ont. Unable to find a job in environmental science, she decided to pursue an accounting career. Soon after, a friend encouraged her to apply to Eco Canada’s internship program. Upon acceptance she added the IEYC credential to her resume, quickly received several job offers and opted for one that allowed her to follow her passion for fish. “I would have been a horrible accountant anyways,” she quips.

“Chandra had a great deal of field experience from her MSc studies at Western, and also some very good project management skills (both from her graduate work as well as from her work in the Caribbean),” says her former IISD supervisor Prof. Michael Rennie. “From the get go, Chandra was exceptionally driven and made it very clear how she could make an essential component of our team,” he says. “She has brought a lot to our program both technically and personally, and we’re so lucky to have her.” Rennie, Canada Research Chair in Freshwater Ecology and Fisheries, says that the Eco Canada approval on the resume of an applicant is a big bonus for any organization looking to expand its ranks.

Chandra’s research with ELA now focusses on how humans can affect aquatic species and their ecosystems. For example, a recent ELA project involved the diversion of a stream feeding water into a lake so the lake was only fed by rain and groundwater. The result was that the trout in the lake moved deeper in an effort to find colder water, shrinking the area of habitat the fish could live in. The diversion simulated what could happen if streams were to dry up because of climate change. Similar effects could also be caused by building hydro-dams.

On top of the scientific research that Chandra and her colleagues conduct at ELA, Chandra and her fellow researchers also work with high school and university field courses to help teach them about aquatic science. Sometimes this means bringing students out in the field to help collect and sample fish and at other times she helps them complete mini-projects about fish, hydrology and water chemistry. While she enjoys every project she’s involved in, Chandra hopes that climate change issues will continue to be the main focus of the centre’s research over the next few years and that increased public awareness of research done at ELA will remain a top priority. “Environmental science is vitally important,” she says.

Founded in 1968, the Experimental Lakes Area is a research station that includes 58 freshwater lakes in northwestern Ontario near the Manitoba border. In 2014, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a non-profit organization based in Winnipeg, took over the administration of the facility from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. In 2012, the federal government had announced that the research station would be closed which resulted in an outcry from scientists and the public, across Canada and internationally.

The Science Horizons internship funding from Eco Canada made a big difference in the ability of IISD to operate in its first year, says Michael Rennie, who supervised Chandra Rodgers during her internship.

"Not only were we a new organization trying to do what we used to do with fewer and new people, but we knew we had to operate within a fixed budget and were still figuring out what exactly our operating costs were going to look like as an independent organization,” he says. “While Chandra competed for the position against many other qualified and talented candidates, she won the position entirely on her own merit. The Eco Canada funding that she had with her was a big bonus, and really helped in allowing us to move forward.”

Large-scale and long-term research at ELA on climatology, acid rain, phosphorus and pharmaceuticals has influenced government policy in Canada and abroad.

By road, the research station is about 65 kilometres east of Kenora, Ont. It is accessible by a gravel road off the TransCanada Highway. It includes cabins, labs, a “hungry hall” kitchen and accommodates about 30 to 50 researchers in non-winter months.

ELA receives funding from a variety of sources, including the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba. The federal government announced new funding for ELA in 2016.

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