The right direction

Emilie Novaczek came to Memorial for a master of science but was inspired to pursue a PhD in geography instead. Her experience with Dr. Devillers’ Marine Geomatics Research Lab introduced her to a research topic she could be passionate about and gave her an ideal learning environment in which she could thrive. She credits the strong relationships she built with her supervisors as the secret to her successful graduate student experience. Ms. Novaczek now studies seafloor mapping and marine biogeography, particularly how marine habitats change over time, and hopes her research will aid conservation planning.

Where are you from?
Breadalbane, Prince Edward Island.

Where, and in what area, did you do your undergraduate or previous graduate work?
I did my bachelor of science at the University of Kings College and Dalhousie University College of Sustainability; my honours thesis research was a study of the impact of tourism and recreation on shallow coral reefs, partnered with the Seaflower Marine Protected Area in San Andres, Colombia, supervised by Dr. Lucia Fanning.

Why did you choose Memorial for doctoral studies?
I came to MUN to join the Marine Geomatics Research Lab – the work of Dr. Devillers and the team here is multidisciplinary (ranging from the technical challenges of collecting spatial data at sea, to modelling noise propagation in three dimensions, to assess interference with killer whales) with a focus on creating meaningful research for marine conservation and marine spatial management.

How would you describe your experience as a graduate student at Memorial?
I have been very lucky to work with a team of extremely talented and supportive supervisors. I came to MUN for a master of science position, but quickly accepted an offer to transition to a PhD because I had found a learning environment that works well for me and a research topic that I love. I think it’s often hard to tell at the beginning of a graduate program how well a student/supervisory team will work together and when I talk to prospective graduate students, this relationship is what I stress the most. Visit, skype, or telephone interview with a potential supervisor and contact current/past students directly (you can find contact information on most departmental websites!).

What is your degree program and area of specialization?
I’m working on a PhD in geography, focused on seafloor mapping and marine biogeography.

Why did you choose this area of study?
In 2012 I was working with the Seaflower Marine Protected Area on research designed specifically to meet the needs of managers. One thing that came up again and again was the lack of up-to-date spatial data: in this case, managers needed maps of coral reef patches, measurements of the health of those reefs, and the overlap between these important habitats and tourism/recreational activities. Those maps supported decisions about MPA zoning, about where to spend limited resources on enforcement and education, and to communicate decisions to the community. That project taught me the value of maps as management tools and today we still have better maps of the moon, Venus and Mars than the seafloor!

What is your research/thesis about?
I study marine habitats and how they change over time to support conservation planning.

What is the goal of your research?
I’m trying to better understand the role of seafloor habitat in climate change driven range shifts of marine fish.

Why did you choose this research question/topic?
I started my graduate work at MUN studying the coastal habitat of Atlantic wolffish – a species at risk in Newfoundland waters. One of our findings that was the shallow, rocky dens used by these fish to lay and guard their eggs are subject to warming temperatures that may impact development. This led to my broader PhD thesis – as ocean conditions change, we know that at a global level marine fish are shifting to deeper waters and moving poleward, but for the vast majority of the ocean, we don’t know what types of seafloor habitat they are leaving or entering, and how this may impact long-term species success, or ecosystem function.

How do you work with your supervisor? Does your work involve other students?
I work closely with my supervisors and lab-mates, whether it’s weekly meetings on the progress and challenges of research, or collaborating with other students on fieldwork.

What are the implications of your research project for the province, the country and the world?
Canada is currently developing a Marine Protected Area Network that will protect 10 per cent of our territorial waters by 2020, and more in the future. My research aims to provide information on where seafloor habitats are the most vulnerable, unique, and/or offer the greatest conservation value, and to better understand how these areas will change in the future so that we can plan efficient and effective protected areas.

Any recent awards/honours?
I just returned from four months with the Deakin Marine Mapping Lab in Warrnambool, Australia, supported by the Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement provided by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council. It was a great opportunity to work with an incredible group of researchers and I’m very excited about our collaborations.

I also want to thank the International Chapter of the P.E.O. for my recent P.E.O. Scholar Award.

Any difficulties in life that you’ve overcome to pursue graduate studies?
I am very fortunate to have a great support system – in particular, my mother who is also a marine scientist and my first/favourite reviewer. But we all face challenges, visible or invisible, and it’s important to recognize that academia does not serve everyone equally. There are countless programs that encourage young girls to embrace science, but few that address systemic bias against women once we reach careers in academia. These barriers are even more severe for women of colour. Rates of mental illness are much higher among graduate students than the general population, but the stigma of mental illness and the suffer-for-your-passion culture of grad school often discourage students from seeking the help we need. From my own experiences, and through my role in the MUN Biology Graduate Student Association, I can tell you that these issues are a constant part of life in graduate school; they require more attention and, critically, more resources.

What are you planning to do after you complete your degree?
I am looking forward to continuing to work in marine conservation research, whether that is in government, academia, or with an NGO.

Do you have any advice for current and/or future graduate students?
Don’t just follow an exciting project or a big name to a graduate program. You will spend two to five years, (or more!) in grad school and the most important factor in having a positive experience is how well you and your supervisors work together. Projects are always evolving, so what you sign up for may not be the thesis you defend, but you will likely be with the same supervisory team throughout. If potential supervisors don’t set up an in-person or phone interview, ask for one! Once you have the time to chat with a potential supervisor, ask about the support you’ll get for conferences, additional training/workshops, or if your degree runs beyond the planned funding period. Find current and former students and ask them (separately) about the working dynamic in the lab and department, and heed their advice!

If you’re in a graduate program, be honest with yourself and seek help when you need it, whether you are seeking funding to attend a useful workshop or if you’re looking for a good counsellor. Your School of Graduate Studies (or similar department), student wellness centre, student union, and/or student association are great places to start looking for resources.

Become a graduate student at Memorial. Apply online today!