The Impacts of COVID-19 on NWF Graduate Students

University closures and travel cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have been impacting program progress, mental health, and research topics of graduate students. Emily Ogden (MSc student, Wilfrid Laurier University) had to change her thesis topic because she was unable to access historic air photos, but this unanticipated challenge presented an opportunity for her to explore an interest in remote sensing.

Meanwhile, Alexis Jorgensen (MSc student, Wilfrid Laurier University) was analyzing data at home instead of spending the summer months in a northern community as planned.

Stephanie Woodworth (PhD candidate, University of Ottawa) has learned to maintain community engagement remotely as she continues to build and strengthen relationships with Ka’a’gee Tu First nation and Sambaa K’e First Nation.

Emily Ogden

2020-2021 GWF Young Professionals Laurier Chair and MSc Student at Wilfrid Laurier University

As a result of COVID-19, I’ve had to change the topic of my thesis project. Before COVID, I was going to use historic air photos from the National Air Photo Library, but with the shutdown I was unable to get the photos I needed for my analysis. While I was disappointed to lose a project that I had invested a lot of time in, this presented a new opportunity for me to explore my interest in remote sensing. Working remotely has also presented its challenges as I learn to work from home where there are plenty of distractions. The thing that has helped me the most is trying to maintain a regular schedule to break up when it is time for work and when it is time to relax.

Photo of Emily Ogden

Alexis Jorgensen

MSc Student at Wilfrid Laurier University

I’m a 2nd year master’s student in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Forest Ecology Research Group. When considering the impact that COVID-19 restrictions have had on many people’s research, I know that I am one of the lucky ones. My thesis is affiliated with a longer-term project and I have completed a field season the summer before officially starting at Laurier, meaning that I have lots of data to work with. As a result, the closure of labs and cancellation of the 2020 field season did not mean significant delays in my research or, as with some poor souls, the requirement to change projects altogether.

Unfortunately, this does not mean that travel restrictions have had no impact. One of the reasons I chose to attend Laurier, was because my project included the opportunity to work directly with Indigenous people in my study area. Reconciliation and community-based research are passions of mine, and I wished to gain direct experience working as a researcher with local people. The plan was for me to spend summer 2020 living in a small northern community. Instead, I spent my summer struggling to create functional statistical models in my little basement bedroom (admittedly, having extra time to work on my stats was probably quite beneficial in terms of my ultimate graduation date). My supervisor and I have started to discuss other potential ways to involve local Indigenous groups in my project, but the loss of face-to-face interaction time makes this much more difficult to do effectively.

Beyond that, the impacts of COVID-19 on my studies have been similar to what many other people are experiencing. My efficiency tanked for awhile as I transitioned to working from home. i had to replace my bedroom chair because my back was getting sore. TA’ing to a grid of blank, silent Zoom screens took some getting used to. I sometimes wonder if I will ever see my headphones or the sweater that I left in my office again. But really, I’m quite lucky. I have a great lab group and an understanding supervisor. We have virtual “writing groups” a few times a week to help with focus, answer each other’s questions, and just to see people outside of our household. We use an online forum to discuss statistics and remote sensing. We’ve even had some socially distanced barbeques.

So yes, COVID-19 has impacted my research, and my life in general, but I have what I need to keep moving forward, even if it’s not quite how I planned.

Photo of Alexis Jorgensen

Stephanie Woodworth

PhD candidate at University of Ottawa

In February 202, I attended a multi-day Climate Adaptation Community Workshop with Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation and Sambaa K’e First Nation in Kakisa, NWT. Northern Water Futures facilitated collaborative sessions with community members, government representatives, fire and safety marshals, and researchers to discuss Climate Adaptation Plans for communities. Specifically, I worked with the local youth to share their vision for the communities.

During the meeting, decided that I would stay in Sambaa K’e from May to August 2020 for my doctoral research to work with the community in planning their next youth on-the-land camp. The purpose of my research is to provide input towards and support the development of sustainable and resilient land-based education (LBE) programming in the NWT that responds to the concerns and priorities of local Indigenous youth. Through the use of creative digital methods and storytelling, I work with local youth to understand their concerns and priorities regarding environmental and socio-cultural changed in the Dehcho.

However, as Canada began lockdown for COVID-19 in late March, all fieldwork plans were promptly cancelled and/or postponed. With these cancellations and uncertainties around future fieldwork dates, it was difficult to plan next steps forward for my research. Given that my research is community-based, not being in the community significantly impacts my ability to conduct this work. Nevertheless, as researchers, we need to be ready to modify our projects at any moment. We need to expect the unexpected, ready to adapt to dynamic and ongoing situations.

Like climate change, we need to create adaptation plans for COVID-19 within communities, organizations and institutions. So, instead of doing fieldwork this summer, the months were used to create a COVID-19 Adaptation Plan. Moving forward, the youth participants will be more involved in the research process as I help to facilitate remotely, from organization and planning to conducting interviews and doing data analysis. It is critical to maintain youth engagement while I cannot physically be present in the community.

Safety of the communities is a top priority, so we musts find ways to adapt to the new circumstances presented by the pandemic, while continuing to build and strengthen relationships with the communities we work with.

Stephanie Woodworth berrypicking in the Dehcho. Photo taken by Kristen Tanche.

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