Viola Cohen

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


 

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IN A SMALL ONTARIO TOWN MID-WAY BETWEEN TORONTO AND WINDSOR, a young Dr. Jennifer Jakobi figure skated, danced and ran track, with aspirations of one day becoming a coach and high school physical education teacher. For the Faculty of Health and Social Development professor, a career as an exercise neuroscientist could not have been further from her radar.

“I was so fortunate to have someone in my life who recognized how I lit up when I was involved in science during my undergrad,” Dr. Jakobi says. “Although I laughed at them and tried to discourage the idea of pursuing it.” It was this mentor’s partner—a school principal—who made all the right arguments, and Dr. Jakobi soon put teaching on hold in favour of a master’s degree in exercise science.

“I followed some sage advice when choosing my master’s degree,” she says. “More so than the field you choose for a master’s, it’s important to make sure you like the person you’re working with; that you can get along with them and be mentored by them. For me, it was Dr. Enzo Cafarelli at York University. A bigger-than-life personality, he got me hooked on human motor science, especially motor unit physiology, and that was the start of my academic journey.”

“Dr. Jakobi has been instrumental in helping me further my research. While encouraging independence in her lab, she is tremendously supportive of her students, and it’s clear she values and actively seeks to facilitate student success and personal growth opportunities.”

Mentorship is something Dr. Jakobi has valued throughout her career—not just as a mentee, but as a mentor—and she doesn’t hesitate to say that her students are the heart of her research. School of Health and Exercise Sciences master’s student Eli Haynes has worked with Dr. Jakobi in her Healthy Exercise and Aging Lab for the past few years. “Dr. Jakobi has been instrumental in helping me further my research,” he says. “While encouraging independence in her lab, she is tremendously supportive of her students, and it’s clear she values and actively seeks to facilitate student success and personal growth opportunities.”

As a way to increase opportunities for girls to experience science, Dr. Jakobi developed the integrative STEM Team Advancing Networks of Diversity (iSTAND) program in 2014. It has since grown to embrace intersectionality and strives to remove labels from learning environments.

“It doesn’t matter who you are,” she says. “People are people. We’re engaging with youth, families and teachers to build an inclusive environment.” She applies this approach to her role as the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)-sponsored Chair for Women in Science and Engineering. Dr. Jakobi is one of five national chairs. And for the BC and Yukon Region, the West Coast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology (WWEST) program aims to empower individuals to make organizational change.

“Through iSTAND and WWEST, we’re going to build a vibrant community of diverse individuals to advance science and generate knowledge.”

The motor unit

“Motor units are individual nerves that exit the spinal cord and go to many muscle fibres,“ explains Dr. Jakobi. “They’re the final neural element of controlling movement.” She adds with a smile that she could study it until she retires. “But there’s more to it than contributing to the scientific literature.”

An older adult study participant once posed the question during her PhD, “Why does this matter to me?” After some deep introspection, Dr. Jakobi realized that what she does in the lab ultimately needs to benefit people.

Dr. Jennifer Jakobi talking with a research patient

Dr. Jennifer Jakobi (left) in the lab.

In her NSERC research program, Dr. Jakobi’s team seeks to realize how sex-specific differences influence the adult aging process. “Our hope is that by understanding neuromuscular adaptations between men and women, we can hone in on specific areas of focus when it comes to lessening functional decline for a man or a woman.”

Dr. Jakobi uses the example of an older man and woman who don’t have the strength to stand up from a chair. “Sex-specific physiological differences exist, so to prevent functional decline with increased age we recommend resistance training for the woman starting in her 40s or 50s. For the man, this might be put off until he’s in his 60s for both of them to experience the same net abilities with increased age.”

Campus collaboration

A highlight of Dr. Jakobi’s recent career has been leading the Aging in Place Research Cluster. The cross-campus collaboration brings together a dynamic team of engineers, psychologists, health and behavioural researchers and volunteer study participants to understand what older adults need and want.

“We want to figure out the physiology that will support those needs and wants, and to use that physiology to inform interventions, self-management, and the design and engineering of products. This is where the work is collaborative, but encompasses the older person.”

She adds: “What I love about it is that we’re able to look at things from a societal perspective. We’ve really engaged with older adults in our research planning.” Key initiatives of the cluster help older adults retain functional independence, improve social connections and promote their physical activity.

“One thing I really appreciate about UBC Okanagan’s smaller campus,” Dr. Jakobi says, “is how many close friends and colleagues I’ve developed. If I need the expertise of someone from a particular faculty, I don’t have to go to a website, I can just pick up the phone and call someone I already know in that faculty.”

UBC Okanagan’s close-knit community also offers the type of teaching environment that Dr. Jakobi relishes. “The smaller environments allow for a real connection with the next generation of scientists and leaders,” she says. “It’s the connection of science impacting life and life impacting science. When students make connections in the lab that are genuine from a place of learning, that’s what I love about teaching.”

She adds: “People are here because they want to make a positive change. They want to keep an institution at the heart of the people, with the people and for the people. UBC Okanagan has a small-town attitude but on a grand scale of international influence through its teaching and research.”

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IT WAS A FEW DECADES AGO, but Dr. Margaret Macintyre Latta remembers the moment like it was yesterday. It was her first day of teaching and she was standing outside the small rural school in Blackie, Alberta, about to head towards the playground to supervise the children. She suddenly heard a gruff voice from behind her say, ”Here, you’re going to need these.”

She gives a small chuckle and continues, “It was the caretaker and he was handing me a pair of gumboots. I was wearing stilettos and was about to walk out onto a field covered in gopher holes and mud. He was right, I needed those!”

The school was kindergarten to grade nine, and Dr. Macintyre Latta was teaching language arts for grades eight and nine, and art for the entire school.

“It was a really interesting place to begin teaching. It was a very caring community, taking much pride in its youth and families. I found myself thinking that I was pretty good at being a teacher, but that was soon challenged!”

After several years at Blackie School, Dr. Macintyre Latta took a position at an urban high school in nearby Calgary, with larger class sizes and less than keen students.

It was in that setting she realized there was a lot more to teaching than what she had found so far. The next few years were difficult, but also rewarding as she emphasized relationship building and learning. She found she had to work hard at those opportunities in a school that was dealing with many inequities.

“I started questioning, ‘how can we think about the profession of teaching differently? How do we invest in the profession differently? How do we help people see the importance and responsibility of the work that’s being done?’”

“It was during this that I started questioning, ‘how can we think about the profession of teaching differently? How do we invest in the profession differently? How do we help people see the importance and responsibility of the work that’s being done?’ Content means very little without contact. In other words, the subject needs to matter to learners and learning,” she says. “I knew what happens in classrooms matters—now, and for the future.”

She began her advocacy by speaking to community members about being a teacher. These experiences pushed her to pursue her master’s degree.

The search for a fitting language of teaching

“When I returned to graduate school, it was to find a language for something I thought was really important, and that search is something I can trace back to my high school days.”

Throughout high school, Dr. Macintyre Latta had art classes with teachers who were practicing artists; one was renowned artist Carole Sabiston, who often involved her students in her collaborative fabric designs.

“I realized I was doing some important thinking in my art classes. I could deliberate, discern, work with materials, and rethink ideas. I loved it. Then, in more academic classes, I longed for this type of thinking. I realized this again as I was teaching and creating what felt like rich substantive learning in my arts classrooms, but in the English classroom, the predetermined curriculum hindered such student engagement.”

Dr. Macintyre Latta felt disheartened by this practice of delivering curriculum to her students in order for them to regurgitate the ideas back. She knew her students were missing what would awaken their passions and interests, as well as the development of learning.

Her master’s dissertation followed an Alberta College of Art instructor and documented the personal practical knowledge she brought to her teaching practices daily, and how much that philosophical stance revealed the instructor’s artistic and educator identity.

Dr. Margaret Macintyre Latta

Dr. Margaret Macintyre Latta.

Following the completion of her master’s, Dr. Macintyre Latta began teaching at the University of Calgary in the Department of Art and Art History. “I really liked the experience of teaching at the university level and the intersection of arts and education, so I applied to do my doctorate. I loved being a student and I wasn’t completely satisfied with what I understood about the language I needed for re-thinking teaching.”

Her PhD dissertation (and later book), The Possibilities of Play in the Classroom: On the Power of Aesthetic Experience in Teaching, Learning, and Researching, documented three teachers and 26 students at a middle school that had been organized to be arts orientated and cross-disciplinary.

“I looked at how teachers organized their classrooms, co-planned and adapted, and I watched as their ideas unfolded throughout the year. It was an opportunity to delve into the lived embodiment of these ideas that were already important to me. I drew on the idea of play, because while play is often associated with children, it’s also the play of ideas, and time and space to actually navigate, and play with, multiple ideas.

“Such play entails challenging values, assumptions and beliefs, as well as investing in personal agency. Essentially, a separate self is detached from the circumstances in which learning develops; a connected self is invested in the re-making of self—creating personal meanings and connections.” Through this research, she gained language to make learner and learning processes visible and tangible.

Shaping the scholar-practitionera student of learners and learning

Following many years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the College of Education and Human Sciences, Dr. Macintyre Latta joined UBC Okanagan in 2013 and moved through several positions before becoming the Okanagan School of Education’s Director in 2019.

Her office walls are lined with shelves stocked full of books, and framed family photos adorn her windowsills. Behind her desk sits a framed poster with the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action for education. She explains, “My office is full of readings and images and things that continually remind me of the importance of teaching.

“Teacher education has become a vehicle for enabling prospective educators and students to experience the formative nature of professional knowledge, heightening awareness of the choices that educators make and their lived consequences for learners and learning.”

“In lots of ways, teaching hasn’t changed substantially,” she reflects. “Kids are still kids but there’s been much more attention to the role and nature of professional knowledge in the field of education. Teacher education has become a vehicle for enabling prospective educators and students to experience the formative nature of professional knowledge, heightening awareness of the choices that educators make and their lived consequences for learners and learning.”

Dr. Macintyre Latta is currently working on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership Research Grant project that brings together educators with local Elders, Knowledge Keepers, university researchers and community partners including the Okanagan Nation Alliance, Central Okanagan Public Schools, IndigenEYEZ, Kelowna Art Gallery and Kelowna Museums Society. The goal is to seek respectful and responsive ways for educators to orient their teaching practices toward decolonization and reconciliation efforts. The intent is that by the end of the five-year project, teachers and their students will have gained deeper understandings of Syilx culture with teachings that connect land, culture and understandings of self in the world.

“Classrooms are recognized in the research literature as sites to address civil, racial, ecological and social tensions and inspire transformation and reconciliation. We can describe and envision these notions, but actually teaching to purposefully encounter and navigate them requires ongoing practice, gaining more awareness, confidence and capacity to see and act on openings to do so—caringly connecting self in the world, and learning to live better in the world together.”

In recognition of her innovative community-based research, Dr. Macintyre Latta received UBC Okanagan’s Researcher of the Year award for Social Sciences and Humanities in 2022.

When asked how she hopes to influence current educators and students, Dr. Macintyre Latta smiles. “The primacy of teachers in the lives of their students is huge. For me, this awesome responsibility is an important vehicle for investing in and elevating the profession, helping educators articulate what they’re doing and why.”

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KYLE LARSON’S CAREER TRAJECTORY PERFECTLY REPRESENTS the power educators have in the lives of their students. Growing up, Dr. Larson didn’t know what he wanted to be—only that he wanted a PhD—until a series of influential teachers set him on a path to ultimately studying the Himalaya.

“I had a high school teacher who was kind of like an anti-teacher—he didn’t ‘make’ us learn, but instead he talked to us and told us stories that incorporated different aspects of Earth Sciences,” explains Dr. Larson, now a Professor of Earth, Environmental and Geographic sciences at UBCO. “I found the way he presented the material really engaging and as a result, I found the material itself engaging. For me, teachers like him stand out.”

Later on, during his undergrad, Dr. Larson was fortunate to be involved with a researcher in Structural Geology and mountain building. Aside from the subject matter—which fascinated Dr. Larson—he also discovered some less-than-obvious benefits of studying Earth Sciences while working alongside the professor as a field assistant: “We would take a helicopter into the mountains in the Yukon and stay there for a couple of weeks. I thought to myself, ‘I can go camping for a living? This sounds all right—I can do this!’”

However, this fieldwork—along with a subsequent role with the BC Geological Survey—also taught Dr. Larson the breadth of knowledge and education needed to be a scientist and “make sense of the world.” After graduating with a Master of Science and trying to enter a lagging job market, Dr. Larson continued in academia for his PhD after learning that a Queen’s University professor was searching for a graduate student to study mountain building in the Himalaya.

Mountains in Everest

Looking northeast up the Lhotse Glacier toward Imja Tse (centre-right; 6,189m) and Lhotse (left; 8,516m).

Now, almost 15 years later, Dr. Larson has visited the Himalaya 14 times in the pursuit of research, hoping to understand how the Earth’s crust deforms where its tectonic plates collide to form mountain ranges. “Typically, what I do is look at the rocks that were deformed during mountain building and try to gain evidence about the processes involved in accommodating the convergence of two different tectonic plates.”

For Dr. Larson, the Himalaya is a perfect research base because it’s a relatively young mountain belt; still actively forming, the range is preserved and hasn’t eroded away like some other ancient belts formed hundreds of millions of years ago.

“We use the mountain range as a natural laboratory, looking at rocks and how they fit together—much like pieces of a 3D puzzle. We see the end part of the puzzle, which is complicated, and then we try to break it down to its individual components and rebuild what geology has done over millions and millions of years.”

Of course, in Dr. Larson’s line of work collecting rock samples is critical and he has one special piece in his collection. “I have a rock specimen from the summit of Mt. Everest for a study we’ve just completed. Sometimes, I put it on the floor and stand on it, just to say I stood on the summit of Everest,” he jokes.

Using novel methods co-developed in the Fipke Laboratory for Trace Element Research (FiLTER), Dr. Larson and his team have made a series of fundamental discoveries about how major mountain belts form. One method involves examining the radioactive decay of the element rubidium to strontium using state-of-the-art laser and spectrometry instruments.

“People have been looking at these elements for decades, but you could only do it by dissolving minerals and separating them using an incredibly labour-intensive process. Now, we can figure out the ages of these rocks by putting the minerals that contain those elements under a laser and then examining how much rubidium has broken down into strontium,” explains Dr. Larson.

“I’ve felt nothing but support from people on campus. They’re always there to help and are invested in the outcomes of what you’re doing…. It really feels like the campus is invested in success, and people who work here day-in and day-out strive to make it happen.”

Another study from the lab, led by recent doctoral graduate student Dr. Iva Lihter, used the chemistry of minerals to model how the Himalaya evolved. Dr. Lihter was able to show that some of the minerals scientists have been using for decades to inform their models are potentially 450 million years too old to be part of the Himalayan system.

“A finding like this provides caution,” says Dr. Larson. “Now we know we have to be aware of this and can’t assume, carte blanche, that everything we see in the rock record is related to what is currently happening in the Himalaya.”

In recognition for the innovative work Dr. Larson and his team are currently exploring at FiLTER, Dr. Larson received UBC Okanagan’s Researcher of the Year award for Natural Sciences and Engineering.

He notes that UBC Okanagan’s smaller campus size and close-community feel have helped enable interesting conversations that led to multiple successes. For example, “The equipment that a lot of the FiLTER lab work has been done on was purchased outside of typical grants, thanks to conversations with people in the Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation office. The few degrees of separation between researchers and the people who can enable that research is so important.”

“I’ve felt nothing but support from people on campus,” Dr. Larson adds, “They’re always there to help and are invested in the outcomes of what you’re doing. There’s always someone to talk to about a problem or opportunity and more times than not, we’re able to come to a positive outcome. It really feels like the campus is invested in success, and people who work here day-in and day-out strive to make it happen.”

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A man sprays water on flames in a fiery forest

AS THE SEARING FLAMES LICK AT THE LODGEPOLE PINES AND KINDLING MOSS, Jeffrey Nishima-Miller works alongside his fellow firefighters to keep the wildfire contained. He’s trying to prevent the flames of the Elephant Hill fire—90 kilometres west of Kamloops—from ravaging nearby ranches, towns and Indigenous communities, where thousands of British Columbians make their living off the land.

That was the summer of 2017 and like many university students across the country, Nishima-Miller—now a doctoral student at UBCO—spent his summers working for the BC Wildfire Service. He’s battled some of the province’s most severe fires. But now, as a researcher exploring how Indigenous communities can create their own wildlife strategies, Nishima-Miller is using past experiences to inform his work. He’s seen first-hand that too many of BC’s forests are “begging to be burned.”

“It’s not surprising what we’re seeing in terms of the size and severity of wildfires. There’s this new reality of climate change and enormous fuel loads in the forests, along with a lot of bug-kill wood,” says Nishima-Miller. “It’s not a good situation; the result is a lot of fires in a short period that are bigger, more intense and hotter than ever, and that move fast across the landscape.”

It didn’t use to be this way.

In the early 1980s, Dr. Kevin Hanna, Nishima-Miller’s doctoral supervisor, worked as a firefighter in the then Ministry of Forests. At the time, there was an emphasis on year-round locally based management to prevent wildfires, often involving community members with fire experience.

A line of men walking through an area that was recently burned

Here, a patrol looks for any hot spots still left smouldering from a recent forest fire.

“That’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen; a lot of the fire suppression and firefighting was directed by the local level,” explains Dr. Hanna, an Associate Professor of Earth Sciences at UBCO and Director of UBC’s Centre for Environmental Assessment Research. He is interested in the risks that wildfire can pose for infrastructure and how the potential for forest fires needs to be considered in the planning, engineering and construction of major projects like pipelines or highways.

“If there was a big fire—and big fires like we see today were rare in those days—we often drew on local people who had training and experience. But what we’ve seen over the years is less local engagement and control, and more centralization of fire suppression, which has shown advantages and disadvantages.”

Flames climbing and envelopping trees in a forest

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Nishima-Miller.

Dr. Hanna notes that although today’s forests are very different due to climate change, in his day the closeness of ranchers and Indigenous peoples to forested areas benefitted firefighting directly. “We worked closely with people who lived and worked on the land. In a fire, they were the ones who could tell you which places to worry about or not, and what the best routes to move equipment and people. They knew who to call when nearby equipment was needed.

“It’s revealing for me to look back and see how we might be able to take that knowledge and experience, and use it going forward,” says Dr. Hanna, adding it’s time to rediscover the value of engaging communities and local people in addressing wildfire risks.

Dr. Mathieu Bourbonnais, an Assistant Professor in Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences at UBCO, echoes the need to change course.

“The current way wildfires are managed is very much founded in Eurocentric approaches and landscape management that focus solely on fire suppression,” explains Dr. Bourbonnais, who—like Nishima-Miller— served as a wildland firefighter in the late 2000s.

In fact, it was those initial firefighting experiences that propelled Dr. Bourbonnais to graduate school and into academia. His fascination with the geomatics in his daily fire briefing packages led to studies in geographic information sciences, remote sensing and statistics. Today he focuses on understanding fuels and fire behaviour, how forests, ecosystems and wildlife may respond in the future, and how to design proactive mitigation to absorb impacts.

“In 2021, BC spent $800 million fighting wildfires, and the combined bill for the major fire seasons in 2017, 2018 and 2021 will likely be over $2 billion in fire suppression costs. Compare this to the approximately $30 million, for example, that’s annually available to communities for fire prevention work. So, there’s a scale element here that doesn’t match.”

Mathieu Bourbonnais, Jeffrey Nishima-Miller and Kevin Hanna walking in the forest

Dr. Mathieu Bourbonnais, Jeffrey Nishima-Miller and Dr. Kevin Hanna.

Although Dr. Bourbonnais, Dr. Hanna and Nishima-Miller have experienced different periods of firefighting and fire management stretching across nearly four decades, their experiences all point in the same direction: society needs to shift its idea of how to get ahead of the wildfire challenge.

“The fires I see now are not the same fires I fought 10 to 15 years ago,” says Dr. Bourbonnais. “It’s a different beast, so we need to explore the idea of collaborating more with communities. We also need to realize that we can’t look to our recent history for what to expect with future fire seasons, because the idea that more fire suppression will fix the problem doesn’t seem like it will work.”

Dr. Hanna points to examples in BC’s Cariboo and Chilcotin regions, where Indigenous communities and local ranchers have taken a role in fire prevention on their lands. Using their own equipment, logging skills and knowledge of the region, they proactively work to protect the land and their livelihoods. “They know their area intimately, and have a personal interest in working to help prevent and respond to wildfires.”

Dr. Bourbonnais says addressing climate change also plays a huge part in tempering wildfire trends. Although climate change is a global challenge, there are issues that can be addressed more immediately and locally.

“Changing how we manage fuels, fires and landscapes are things we can address right now. When people talk about the fire situation being too big to tackle, we actually have many of the mechanisms. We have policies, we have people who can do the work—including prescribed burning and thinning—and we have the knowledge. But unfortunately, we’re not harnessing this to our advantage.”

As for Nishima-Miller—the youngest of the three and the one who has fought some of the most severe wildfires in BC’s history—he’s optimistic.

“There’s still so much work left to do but I hope these recent severe wildfire seasons make things better in terms of areas that needed to burn.”

While all three see promise in BC’s recent move to a year-round wildfire service, they also note that if society is going to meet the challenges facing it today and in the years to come, there needs to be better use of local knowledge and skills, and more openness to new approaches to wildfire management.

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