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Working in the sunshine, surrounded by the soft hum of a dozen beehives this summer, Tianna Tanasichuk couldn’t help thinking of her recently passed Métis great-grandmother.

Tianna Tanasichuk

Tianna Tanasichuk

“Whenever I was working with the bees, I felt like if she was here, she’d be proud of me, knowing I took this risk, of trying to grow by trying new things.”

As one of 19 participants in the I-STEAM Pathways Environmental Education Program for Indigenous Students, Tanasichuk, a third-year mathematics student at the University of Alberta, stretched her learning boundaries by exploring the world of biology.

As an intern in the social insect research lab headed by professor Olav Rueppell in the Faculty of Science, Tanasichuk spent this summer suited up and exploring the behaviour of bees in relation to their body size. But she had no idea she’d be able to learn so much about herself, too.

After hearing about the I-STEAM program through First Peoples’ House at the U of A, Tanasichuk decided to apply, to widen her experience after working from home in her small rural community last year.

“I thought it would be a cool experience to try working in a lab. In a small town, you don’t have that opportunity, and I wanted to see if it would be a good fit for me.”

Turns out it was, and she’ll be staying on in the lab this fall to help the other researchers crunch the numbers on data interpretation, putting her math skills to uses she didn’t know existed.

“When I signed up for the program, I thought it would be a lot of biology and no math, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to contribute much. But it’s been great to be the math person to help them with their work.”

Along the way, she’s also learned more about the role of pollinators to plants of Indigenous importance, drawing her closer to her culture. “Pollination plays a huge role in maintaining medicinal herbs and food and our way of life in general.”

Four months spent tagging bees and helping to establish and monitor colonies also gave Tanasichuk a deeper appreciation for the buzzers. A couple of stings didn’t dim her enthusiasm.

“I can talk people’s ears off for an hour about bees – they’re such complex creatures. I didn’t think I’d learn all that from one internship.”

She also gained some community-level experience, giving presentations about bees to school children in her hometown and working with the City of Edmonton to light up the High Level Bridge in yellow to mark Pollinator Week in July.

The I-STEAM program, conceived in 2020, enables First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth to explore career possibilities while doing interdisciplinary research in biology, technology, environmental engineering, policy, and law.

“The program helps provide an opportunity for Indigenous students to explore and come to understand what possibilities there are in environmental studies that can contribute to their communities as well as their careers,” said Makere Stewart-Harawira, an Indigenous (Māori) professor in the Faculty of Education.

The multidisciplinary program was co-founded by Stewart-Harawira and Greg Goss from the Faculty of Science, along with researchers from the faculties of law and engineering.

Other I-STEAM student projects this year tackled varied environmental issues important to Indigenous communities, including air quality, climate change and food sovereignty.

The program allows for “a spontaneous exchange of understanding” among researchers and the Indigenous students they work alongside for the summer, she added.

Bringing an Indigenous student into his research program – Tanasichuk was the first to take part – opens up the opportunity for a different and valuable perspective on environmental sustainability, said Rueppell.

“What beekeepers and others in agricultural industries have tended to do is build short-term economic benefit models around the resources we have, and it’s becoming clear on a global scale throughout our natural world that we need to think longer-term and include costs that may not be immediately visible. If I understand correctly, Indigenous knowledge already incorporates that understanding of sustainability.”

Trying to learn more about her Métis culture, Tanasichuk appreciated the opportunity to reflect on it through her work with Rueppell and her other colleagues. “It was exciting being asked about it and sharing it with the lab.”

As a mathematics student, Tanasichuk also brought a multidisciplinary lens to the program’s research, Rueppell added.

“It forces us as biologists to re-evaluate and step out of the established ways of thinking when we have to explain our material to someone. And that can help us question old ideas and give us new ones as well.”

In one case, Tanasichuk asked about the differing development of eggs into male and female bees.

“This is governed by a genetic switch, but her question made me wonder whether that switch can be influenced by environmental factors, such as body size – which was related to her research project in the I-STEAM program.

“Tianna asked us good questions that made us think about what we thought we had already pinned down.”

Originally interested in pursuing a career in finance, Tanasichuk is now instead considering turning her love of numbers toward an eventual PhD in data analysis.

“Most people, including myself, always assume that mathematics is mostly related to business because of money and currency, but analyzing data of honeybee life made me more appreciative of the way mathematics can be used in the field of science,” she said.

The program opens up “a whole new world of possibilities” for the students, Stewart-Harawira noted.

“Many of the students in the program this year were talking to me about doing graduate studies, and how they’d not understood what environmental research was, and how they can see themselves now developing careers and taking knowledge back to their communities.”

The I-STEAM Pathways Environmental Education Program for Indigenous Students began through creative sentencing awards overseen by the Alberta Energy Regulator and is now dependent on philanthropic funding. Alliance Pipeline will fund an intern in 2022.

| By Bev Betkowski

This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

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