A unique path to a scientific career
By: Lucy Harrison, Project Manager, Vancouver
I was born in the United Kingdom where I obtained a Bachelor’s (Honours) Degree from the University of Plymouth in Marine Biology. My thesis assessed commercial fish foods on growth of a tropical fish under aquarium conditions. In 2015, I moved to Canada to complete a Master’s Degree from Simon Fraser University in Tropical Marine Ecology. This time, my thesis focused on the impacts of pollution on coral reefs on an island in the central Pacific Ocean.
Now living in the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations in Vancouver, British Columbia, I am a Project Manager for the Pacific and Yukon Regional Office of the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada since 2020. In this role, my responsibilities are varied and broad. I manage the environmental assessments for large steel-making coal mines in the Elk Valley, a region in southeastern British Columbia, under the requirements of the former Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012. This region has a history of over 100 years of coal mining which has led to considerable pollution and environmental effects. I am responsible for implementing federal legislation that defines how to carry out environmental and impact assessments, and work closely with the province of British Columbia to ensure that our respective impact assessment processes align. I work with other federal departments, such as Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada, to incorporate their technical and scientific input into the impact assessment process. I also advise project proponents on how to interpret and implement our legislation. I really enjoy this position because I am able to see the big picture of how to implement the Impact Assessment Act, while also participating in and leading discussions related to potential effects of a project, and how to reduce or eliminate those effects.
My science path began when I was 12 years old. That is when I started scuba diving with my father and saw the fishes, seaweeds, corals and invertebrates that live on the coral reef up close and personal. My school teacher at the time gave me a book on whales and dolphins and I was hooked! I did not really have an idea about the type of job I wanted to do but I knew that I enjoyed being underwater learning about marine life and getting others excited about it too.
Since then, I have had a very unique career working for many different types of organisations, including: an aquarium; an architects firm; a marine research station; a chemistry research lab at a university; a salmon research group; an international shark conservation organisation; an environmental consulting firm; and now the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada. Because of this, I feel that I bring an understanding of a broad range of issues, which helps me communicate with proponents, other regulators, technical specialists and the public.
Looking back at my career, the driving force has been saying ‘yes’ to new and exciting opportunities, however strange and scary they sounded. Yes to moving to Mississippi to manage a tropical diving and sample collection research program. Yes to moving to Vancouver to do my Master’s Degree in a city that I had never visited on the other side of the planet. Yes to carrying out northern research on the impact of helicopter traffic on mountain goats. Yes to joining the federal government and becoming a regulator of impact assessment processes. Taking risks and diving into the unknown have brought me to where I am today.
The biggest hurdle I have had to overcome along the way is finding confidence in my own abilities. It was easy to compare myself to other people who appeared to be doing ‘bigger and better things’ but actually, when I stopped to think about it, there was no way they could do what I do – juggling multiple deliverables, swapping between topics multiple times a day, managing budgets and project teams. Once I started to see the unique experiences that I could bring to a scientific position, my confidence in myself and my ability to take on new tasks and new roles grew.
What I enjoy most about working in science is how varied my day is. Sometimes I am trying to understand how a certain type of pollution makes its way into the environment, and how water can be treated to remove that pollutant. Other days I am developing briefing materials to explain key technical issues to senior management within the Agency, or presenting information on the impact assessment process to Indigenous groups or the public. Science defines the studies that a proponent must carry out as part of their impact assessment submission. It drives the conversations I have with other federal departments about the potential impacts of a project on the environment and it helps me understand the project that a proponent wants to undertake.
I would recommend studies in science because it can lead you on so many different career paths. You could be working in the field studying mountain goats next to giant glaciers or you could be communicating conservation issues to the public in an aquarium. You could become a researcher at a university or you could become an environmental consultant helping proponents find more environmentally sensitive ways to execute their projects. Myriad career options are available to women and girls willing to pursue science.
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