Viola Cohen

Email: viola-cohen@news.ok.ubc.ca


 

A photo of Mount Robson with yellow flowers in the foreground

WHILE THE SEARING HOT ASPHALT, DRIPPING AIR CONDITIONERS and withering plants might have caused many in Western Canada to look longingly at the region’s cool mountains during the historic heat dome in June 2021, even those seemingly frosty summits were starting to sweat.

It’s common to think of mountains as stationary features in a landscape, but as Dr. Lael Parrott points out, in their own longer time scales mountains are not constant, but constantly changing. With extreme events like 2021’s heat dome and the continuing effects of climate change, that change is becoming more visible.

Dr. Parrott is a Professor of Sustainability at UBC Okanagan and co-editor of the Alpine Club of Canada’s State of the Mountains report, an annual publication dedicated to drawing attention to changes in Canada’s alpine environments. Climate change has been a strong recurrent theme and this year’s report is no different, with the high temperatures from 2021’s heat dome causing far-reaching effects.

One of the most dramatic impacts was the flooding of the world-renowned Berg Lake Trail in Mount Robson Provincial Park. With the uninterrupted days of record-breaking heat in June, snow melt from the Robson Glacier flooded the Robson River’s banks, not only in the usual places but also in areas where the river hadn’t flooded before. By June 30, the worst of the heat dome was over, but half of the trail was under more than 50 centimetres of water. Other areas that weren’t flooded had significant cracks. BC Parks closed the trail and began supporting approximately 250 hikers as they made their way out.

Then, a massive thunderstorm hit on July 1. Hail and lightning exploded over the area, along with over 20 centimetres of rain in a six-hour period, which raised the river six metres. Over 50 hikers further up the trail needed to be evacuated by helicopter with the help of search-and-rescue teams.

A black and white photo of the glacier at Mount Robson in 1911

The Robson Glacier in 1911. Photo: A.O. Wheeler, courtesy of the Mountain Legacy Project and Library and Archives Canada.

A shot of Robson Glacier in 2011, which shows clear melting of the glacier since 1911

The Robson Glacier in 2011. Photo courtesy of the Mountain Legacy Project, School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria.

For the rest of the season, the Robson River kept shifting across the valley. BC Parks staff built temporary bridges but in days and even hours, these structures were washed out, while many of the usual bridges had only dry earth underneath. The Berg Lake Trail remained closed over the 2022 season and will take years to rebuild.

Rivers are often thought of as static landmarks on our human-made maps, but Dr. Parrott points out that the Robson River’s significant course change as it spilled across the valley is proof of how dynamic the landscape is—and how humans will need to learn to adapt.

Similarly, the report details how the heat dome crumbled the last hope of permanently preserving the Abbot Pass Refuge Cabin. The historic cabin, which was built by Swiss guides in 1922, sat at 2,925 metres above sea level in the Rocky Mountains, straddling the provincial border near Lake Louise. While work had begun in 2018 to address slope instability underneath the cabin as the permafrost thawed, the extreme heat in 2021 accelerated the process.

“That permafrost was like ice glue holding all the rocks together,” says Dr. Parrott.

Without that ice holding firm under the cabin’s foundation, the slope was too unstable for anchors to help permanently preserve the cabin as planned. The cabin’s masonry was also cracked. When the hut was taken down from the mountain for safety reasons in 2022, workers found enough cracks and failures to suggest the hut’s entire structure was compromised.

“Ice is melting everywhere, and exponentially faster,” says Dr. Parrott. The report notes that between 2011 and 2020, Western Canada’s glacier ice shrunk by 340 square kilometres per year, which is seven times faster than the rate of glacier loss from 1984–2010. This significant melt will dramatically impact not just the mountains but also freshwater habitats and downstream water availability.

Abott Pass Hut sitting precariously on the mountain, with the ground falling away beneath it

The exposed, steep and unstable north slope cutting away underneath the Abbot Pass Hut in 2021. Photo courtesy of Parks Canada.

Other highlights of the report, which is available online, include articles on the bison reintroduction program led by the Stoney Nakoda Nation, an exciting fossil discovery in the Mackenzie Mountains, drilling of a 327-metre deep ice core from the top of Mount Logan and the knowledge-sharing iNaturalist project where climbers can send alpine photos to experts.

The State of the Mountains report is now in its fifth year and has received international recognition from its 2022 nomination for the UIAA Mountain Protection Award. The report has often featured extreme events like the heat dome, including the effects of dramatic wildfires and avalanches, amid coverage of how changing temperatures or snow levels are affecting other living creatures like salmon and mountain goats.

Dr. Parrott says humans can expect extreme weather events to happen more and more often as the Earth warms and climate patterns that have persisted for thousands of years begin to shift.

“The lesson to us humans is to explore resilience, not in the sense of ‘build stronger, build bigger’ but in terms of how do we retreat and leave space for the mountains, for rivers, for the environment to be dynamic and to adapt to the kinds of changes that are occurring?”

*main photo courtesy of Natasha Ewing.

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AS BRENDAN DYCK SAT IN HIS INTRODUCTORY GEOLOGY COURSE as an undergraduate student, he couldn’t help but be fascinated by the questions boggling earth scientists, like why the polarity of Earth’s magnetic field reverses roughly every half million years.

“These unsolved problems of the discipline were really captivating because they were very tangible,” says Dr. Dyck, now an Assistant Professor in Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences at UBC Okanagan. “They seemed like questions we should know the answers to already. I thought, yes, I can make a difference there.”

Answering those longstanding questions is still what motivates him to get on his bike every day to ride to UBCO’s campus. Dr. Dyck’s passion for petrology, or the study of rocks, is far-reaching. He uses high-resolution electron microscopy to investigate how minuscule minerals and crystals react to stress in the Earth’s rocky crust. He also uses the same skills and thermodynamic equations to understand how planets outside of our solar system form and what their potential is to hold surface water. Much of his group’s current work in the Fipke Laboratory for Trace Element Research (FiLTER) is to understand how tectonic stress is related to metamorphic changes in rocks.

Though he loves being behind the microscope, Dr. Dyck is also drawn to fieldwork. Many of his field projects are set in the Canadian Arctic, where researchers fly in by helicopter, unpack their gear and then watch as the helicopter’s deafening whirr disappears over the rugged landscape.

“When the helicopter takes off, there’s this very calming hum as they’re away in the distance. Everything quiets right down, the animals and birds start making their noise again and then you feel like, okay, we finally made it.”

Dr. Dyck overlooking the Austrian alps

Dr. Brendan Dyck in the Austrian Alps, overlooking Hohe Tauern National Park.

For most trips, Dr. Dyck and his team canoe or hike to a specific outcrop to discover what records of change might be waiting there in the natural laboratory of the Earth’s crust. The real answers often come later as they investigate the samples gathered.

However, Dr. Dyck savours those surprising, in-the-field observations where he can hypothesize what his findings will be just by looking at the rock in his hand. In the summer of 2022, Dr. Dyck went on a field project to the Wopmay fault zone in the Northwest Territories to better understand earthquakes at depth. There in the field, he saw that the dark mafic rock his team found had more red garnet than suspected. The composition suggested that a rock from the continental plate had been under high pressure and potentially pushed 100 kilometres deep into the subduction zone before resurfacing thousands of years later during a period of high seismic activity.

“To find that at the surface is quite a rare thing, and no one had described it from this region.”

Dr. Dyck confirmed his field observation back in the lab with FiLTER’s electron microscope. He calls FiLTER and its advanced equipment “a beacon” for his decision to come to UBCO and is thrilled to be heavily involved in the state-of-the-art laboratory. UBCO’s stunning location in the Okanagan also allows him to explore the outdoors in his spare time, whether it’s biking the length of Kelowna to campus every day, mountain and gravel biking on weekends or downhill and cross-country skiing in the winter.

While his love of nature helped spark his interest in earth sciences, it also drives Dr. Dyck’s earnest enthusiasm for research involving the distribution of critical metals like lithium, which are crucial for transitioning to green energy. His passion for this and all his research is infectious. When asked about what research area he’s most excited about, he laughs.

“Everything,” says Dr. Dyck. “Everything I do.”

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A cancer patient looks on as a female physician or nurse tends to her

THIS YEAR, MORE THAN 30,000 BRITISH COLUMBIANS WILL BE diagnosed with cancer, including 6,195 in the interior region. Sadly, those numbers will continue growing year on year; according to BC Cancer’s projections, the number of new cancer cases in the region is expected to increase by 27 per cent from 2019 to 2034.

Following specialist treatment, many of them will go on to live long lives in the care of their family physicians, nurse practitioners or other primary care providers, thanks in part to early detection, improvements in technology and more effective treatments.

Dr. Siavash Atrchian

Dr. Siavash Atrchian from BC Cancer-Kelowna.

For Kelowna-based BC Cancer radiation oncologist Dr. Siavash Atrchian, a clinical assistant professor in UBC’s Faculty of Medicine and a radiation oncologist at BC Cancer-Kelowna, ensuring the best outcomes for his patients means understanding how best to integrate family physicians into their care.

“Overall, in the patient cancer journey, I think family doctors play an extremely important role, from the start to the end,” says Dr. Atrchian. “As oncologists, we can’t follow our patients forever once their cancer treatment has been completed. I’m very interested in seeing whether we can improve this journey. How can I do a better job in my role? How can I communicate better with other care providers?”

These questions were on his mind when Dr. Atrchian was first introduced to Dr. Christine Voss, an investigator at UBCO’s Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Management, in 2019. Dr. Voss, who was just helping to launch the Centre’s Clinical Research and Quality Improvement (QI) Incubator Program, was intrigued at the opportunity to help tease out some answers.

“The premise of the incubator initiative is really to bring health scientists together with clinicians,” Dr. Voss explains. “In Dr. Atrchian, you have a clinician who really understands the needs around post-cancer treatment, while I’m a scientist who knows how to set up a mixed-methods study, collect and analyze the data,” Dr. Voss adds. “I recommended interviews and surveys of family physicians and oncologists in Interior Health, and was able to guide how to set those up.”

Dr. Voss and Dr. Atrchian soon became co-principal investigators of an interdisciplinary team of researchers, oncologists, family physicians and Southern Medical Program students, with the goal of examining how to best integrate family doctors into the post-cancer treatment care of the four most common cancers: breast, lung, colon and prostate.

To conduct the information-gathering for their research, Dr. Voss and Dr. Atrchian tapped then-first-year UBC Southern Medical Program student Brian Hayes, who took it on as his FLEX project. Having already completed a Master of Science in Kinesiology at UBC Vancouver, Hayes was eager to participate in research that would inform his journey toward becoming a doctor and directly benefit patients.

Dr. Christine Voss sitting at a desk

Dr. Christine Voss was intrigued by the opportunity to work with BC Cancer’s Dr. Siavash Atrchian to understand how to better integrate family physicians into patients’ post-cancer care.

“I wanted to research something more similar to where I saw myself practicing,” Hayes explains. “I was thinking about family medicine as a possible career path, and the project sounded really interesting, doing interviews and surveys and talking to doctors. This seemed like a big quality-improvement, big-picture kind of project that I found interesting.”

A year into the project, Hayes suggested bringing his classmate Hannah Young on board, who jumped at the chance to get involved. “Being from a rural community and wanting to practice rural family medicine, I thought this was right up my alley in terms of improving and optimizing the health care in those rural areas for cancer patients,” she says. For those living in rural areas, acute cancer care can involve additional travel for treatments like chemotherapy and radiation; when they complete their active treatment, they will be relying heavily on their family doctors for ongoing follow-up care.

Young was tasked with helping to design and distribute anonymous surveys to 943 family physicians and 39 oncologists throughout BC’s interior about their experiences working with one another to support cancer patients. When the surveys came back with a high response rate—25 per cent for the family physicians, and close to 100 per cent for the oncologists—the research team was thrilled.

“It was really neat, because when you start getting results you realize how tangible this research is, and that the work you’re doing is connecting with real people,” says Young. “By making the lives of the physicians better, by working toward different strategies to improve care, you’re also helping so many patients as well.”

Brian Hayes and Hannah Young working together on a laptop

Southern Medical Program students Brian Hayes and Hannah Young worked together on a research project to help improve health care for cancer patients living in rural areas.

Having seen first-hand what a diagnosis of cancer means for people living in rural areas, Young understood the importance of what Dr. Voss and Dr. Atrchian were doing. “I’ve definitely seen how difficult it can be to access treatment in a rural community when you’re having to travel far distances for specialist care. Especially if you’re in pain, and with all the stress, it can be really, really hard.”

The team is still working on analyzing the data they’ve collected and will be submitting their results for publication, with Young and Hayes as first authors—a highly valuable experience for both. While it’s too early to share details of their findings, Dr. Atrchian says the work is revealing how cancer patients’ post-treatment journey can be better supported by those caring for them. That includes bringing oncologists and family physicians together for more regular educational sessions; more robust guidelines for discharge notes from oncologists to family physicians; and creating more opportunities for them to communicate with one another.

Delivering actionable results that could result in improved patient care is something Dr. Atrchian feels particularly passionate about. “There are many components that I, as a clinician, can’t do anything about, like hiring more doctors or addressing wait times,” he observes. “But I can find out, ‘How can I help myself? How can I do a better job? How can I communicate better?’ to improve this patient journey. I hope that this research is going to trigger other people to think about it, and come up with other brilliant ideas about how we can improve.”

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Dr. Shelly Ben-David standing with her grad students in front of the Foundry

IN A ONE-MINUTE ANIMATED YOUTUBE VIDEO, a bunny named BonBon sits alone in its bed in a dim room, weakly illuminated by the glow of a cell phone. Rejection letters from various universities are pinned on BonBon’s bedroom wall, and on their phone is a message from a friend, who poses excitedly by a large UBC sign: “I got in!”

BonBon, feeling blah, scrolls down to other feeds. The first reports wildfires raging across the province—another downer. But the next, from Foundry—which offers wellness services to BC youth aged 12 to 24—makes BonBon pause. “Strong people seek support,” it declares.

It’s a deceptively simple message. But bundled into it is research illuminating how young people make decisions about whether or not to seek help with their mental health and life challenges. That research, still ongoing, is led by Dr. Shelly Ben-David, an Assistant Professor at UBC Okanagan’s School of Social Work.

Years ago, when Dr. Ben-David worked at NYU and the New York State Psychiatric Institute—where there were “amazing psychosocial interventions to help young people”—she noticed many struggling youths. Adolescence and young adulthood are when important psychosocial and neurobiological changes happen. If mental health issues are tackled early, that can help a young person avoid crises that can seriously disrupt milestones in their schooling, relationships, jobs and futures.

In Canada, statistics show youth in the 15 to 24 age group have the highest rates of substance abuse and mental health disorders, yet only 20 per cent get appropriate treatment.

Dr. Ben-David wanted to know why.

“If young people aren’t accessing services, or staying engaged with services, to me, that’s a glaring issue.” But there’s been little theoretically driven research examining the decision-making process struggling youth use to decide whether to access services. What are their barriers? What factors in their lives might nudge them to seek help?

In 2018, with the help of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant, Dr. Ben-David set out to probe the mystery of what gets young people through the front doors of organizations like Foundry, which has 11 centres across British Columbia.

With a team of more than a half-dozen UBCO graduate and undergraduate students from the School of Social Work helping her, Dr. Ben-David worked with Foundry Kelowna to recruit 41 youth—aged 15 to 24—into her study. She also collaborated with the Canadian Mental Health Association in Kelowna.

“Foundry is amazing,” says Dr. Ben-David, who strives to put community engagement into the heart of her research work. Youth (including high school and university students) and parent advisory councils were formed to help Dr. Ben-David’s UBCO team recruit participants and develop questions. “It was really important that community members, including young people, were involved in the research process.”

The input of youth on the very structure and implementation of her research, says Dr. Ben-David, enhanced its validity. “After all, they have more current expertise in being a young person,” she laughs.

Dr. Shelly Ben-David

Dr. Shelly Ben-David.

Using a decision-making framework called the Unified Theory of Behavior (UTB), Dr. Ben-David’s team conducted semi-structured interviews with the teens and young adults using Foundry. Those interviews were key to unearthing how youth decide to reach out for professional help with their issues—or suffer in silence.

In simple terms, part of the UTB framework that Dr. Ben-David and her student assistants employed during research interviews posits that the intention to do something is informed by five “constructs,” among them social norms, emotions and self-concept.

One example of an emotional construct, explains Dr. Ben-David, is that seeking a service could be “really scary for someone, which is going to affect their decision-making process.” For instance, depending on the social norms some youth face in their particular families or community, a young person seeking professional help for anxiety or depression might fear being stigmatized as weak.

Radha Ortiz, then a master’s student in social work, was one of Dr. Ben-David’s graduate research assistants. She undertook a variety of roles in the study; she helped build the conceptual model of the research, supported grant writing and related academic papers, and, most critically, conducted qualitative interviews with Foundry youth and their parents.

“It was a huge privilege to hear the stories of these youth and parents,” says Ortiz, who, as a young girl, immigrated with her parents to Canada from Argentina. That experience of navigating settlement in Canadian society instilled in Ortiz a passion for social work and justice, and led her to UBCO’s clinical social work program, where she focused on youth mental health.

“The earlier we can equip individuals with tools to understand themselves and their emotions, the better they fare when life throws adversity and big challenges their way.”

As she interviewed the youth at Foundry, Ortiz recalls, “Their desire to create change by participating in the research was very humbling and inspiring. For me, being a part of this study was very grounding and came at a critical time in my studies when I was feeling far removed from the people I hoped to serve afterward. This experience reinvigorated my passion for social work.”

With her research analysis in hand, Dr. Ben-David wanted to quickly translate it to a larger audience. “That’s why we did animated videos. We wanted young people to translate the data; individuals from Foundry Richmond helped write the scripts, design the animations and compose the music,” she says. So far, the team has created several short videos featuring BonBon, all designed to encourage young people to overcome any negative perceptions they might have about seeking health and social services.

“The kind of researcher I want to be is not just about writing academic papers, but also ensuring my work is translatable to general audiences,” says Dr. Ben-David. She intends for the findings in this study—and a new one about the divide among BC youth accessing digital mental health technologies—to influence health and wellness policies around the country and help shape how organizations like Foundry increase access to their services.

Ortiz, now employed as a clinical counsellor with Interior Health, continues to be involved in research with Dr. Ben-David’s youth mental health lab. Her experience as a UBCO graduate research assistant has deepened her understanding of youth mental help and shaped her own approach to her clinical practice.

“What really stands out for me from the Foundry study—which is mirrored in my work—is the role emotions play in help-seeking and mental health. The earlier we can equip individuals with tools to understand themselves and their emotions, the better they fare when life throws adversity and big challenges their way.”

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IN THE FALL OF 2018, IN ERNAKULAM, KERALA, INDIA, civil engineer Dr. Chinchu Cherian and her family were about to welcome a new son and brother into their fold. At the time, Kelowna, British Columbia, and UBC Okanagan were 13,200 kilometres away, but even further from their minds.

While UBCO is lauded for having a close-knit campus community, the significance of its global reach spanning oceans and crossing borders cannot be muted. It was through an acquaintance of Dr. Cherian’s doctoral supervisor, Dr. Dali Naidu Arnepalli at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, that a life-changing opportunity would present itself.

“Dr. Arnepalli used to tell me that your graph should always be going up,” says Dr. Cherian, gesturing towards the ceiling. “With family and kids, I thought it was time to settle down. I had given up on my aspirations to pursue further heights in my career. I was happy that way, but Dr. Arnepalli added wings to my dreams again.” With this enthusiastic encouragement—and while six months pregnant—Dr. Cherian applied for and received a fellowship with Dr. Sumi Siddiqua in UBCO’s School of Engineering.

The 13,200-kilometre span between Ernakulam and Kelowna seemed to narrow with the help of social media. “My husband found an online video of Dr. Siddiqua and looked at the names of people who liked it on Facebook. He saw a familiar Indian name and sent her a personal message.”

Dr. Chinchu Cherian and Dr. Sumi Siddiqua

Dr. Cherian with Dr. Sumi Siddiqua of UBCO’s School of Engineering.

As luck would have it, this stranger―Dr. Anupama Pillai―had done a post-doctoral fellowship at UBCO and hailed from their home province in India. “After meeting her online, she gave us some advice about relocating and information about Canada. She was very supportive. We finally met in person when we arrived in British Columbia and have been great friends since.”

Having a female role model such as Dr. Siddiqua in an industry that is commonly perceived as being male-dominated has been crucial to Dr. Cherian. “I consider myself lucky to have a supervisor in Dr. Siddiqua,” she says. “Only another woman can 100 per cent understand the challenges faced by a working mother. The positive and welcoming environment at UBC Okanagan has given me the confidence to achieve a high calibre of work.”

Dr. Cherian notes that while there are considerate male supervisors, communication is much easier when there’s a shared understanding of what it means to be a mother. “When female role models that have kids and families continue to pursue their dreams and succeed, they tell us that nothing is impossible.”

A keystone project for Dr. Cherian has been her research conducted with support from a Mitacs Elevate Scholarship and in partnership with BC’s pulp-mill industry. Over the course of two years, her team looked for ways to recycle wood fly ash, a pulp-mill waste product, into a green alternative to portland cement in the construction of concrete roads and buildings. “The fundamental technologies are well developed,” Dr. Cherian says. “It’s our job to make them more sustainable and environmentally friendly.”

She adds: “While these are small steps, this type of research is happening globally. The cumulative result will have a positive impact on our future.”

Dr. Cherian in the lab

After completing her Mitacs fellowship, Dr. Cherian immersed herself in teaching opportunities in the School of Engineering. “I tell my friends that when you’re a teacher, you don’t age, you always feel like a student yourself.” She has formed strong relationships with her diverse group of students and credits being a mother as having informed her teaching style. “Through my son and daughter, I’ve learned to appreciate that different people have different perspectives and needs that must be met.”

This appreciation was the catalyst for Dr. Cherian’s esteem for the Disability Resource Centre and the Equity and Inclusion Office. “We see such positive outcomes with the implementation of these services at UBCO,” she says. “It’s my goal to advocate for the support of students from a variety of facets including mental health and the removal of barriers to education, especially in places where these pillars don’t exist.”

Dr. Cherian is thrilled to be extending her work with Dr. Siddiqua as a Research Engineer in the School of Engineering and hopes to continue sharing her passions for civil engineering, diversity and sustainability with students as a Sessional Instructor this fall.

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