FEATURED FACULTY: Dr. Brian Branfireun
Visit Dr. Branfireun's website
Dr. Brian Branfireun asserts that when he moved to Western after 10 years at the University of Toronto to take up the Canada Research Chair in Environment and Sustainability “it wasn’t part of some grand plan” to come back to his hometown of London. Indeed, even being a biologist is something he’s grown into: “Despite always being fascinated by the living world, when I arrived at Western to do my undergrad my other interest in Geography got my academic attention as I had initially envisioned myself teaching Geography at the high school level.” Studying physical geography didn’t immediately lead to biology, but for his MSc at York University, Brian did his field research at the Experimental Lakes Area in Northern Ontario. “This led me to think a lot more about biology for two reasons. First, wetland hydrology and biogeochemistry is so regulated by biology it became instantly apparent that I needed to know a lot more about biology. Second, the Experimental Lakes Area was overwhelmingly focused on fisheries research. Chatting to people over meals or in the evenings, the issues discussed were so often about limnology and freshwater ecology that I picked it up by osmosis.”
Although his PhD was also in Geography (at McGill), Brian says that developing an understanding of biological processes was integral to his research in environmental mercury cycling. “At the time, there weren’t many interdisciplinary Environment programmes. I think I would have gravitated towards them if they had been available”. After his PhD, Dr. Branfireun immediately landed a faculty position at the University of Toronto “I’m not sure that would happen nowadays – it’s so hard now to demonstrate your competitiveness without doing a postdoc now”, and was granted Tenure in 2004. Over the years, Brian started to realise where his focus lies: “Ostensibly, I work on mercury cycling in the environment, but over time I have come to realise that the common thread is that I am intensely interested in ecosystems at risk. The more we know about how ecosystems work, the more we realise how close many of them are to irreversible changes. I find that intellectually exciting, but also morally disturbing – it really helps me to focus on important questions – it’s easy to get pretty esoteric when you are a scientist”.
Moving to Western, and from Geography to Biology has provided Brian with an opportunity to reset many of his priorities and goals. “I’ve always been a nervous traveller – I find it quite intimidating to be a cultural outsider and maybe not be able to communicate well. Recently I have taken advantage of collaborative opportunities to go to interesting places that don’t involve full-on adventure. I don’t mind roughing it, and when I’m in the company of local researchers, for example in Central Mexico, I have been able to explore situations that would otherwise have been well beyond my comfort zone”. Brian has already noted the many opportunities at Western to develop collaborations –incorporating both biology and geography – in new, far-flung places.
Brian is always on the lookout for new, motivated, students interested in working in the multidisciplinary environment of his lab. For more information on this, or about his research, visit his website. http://publish.uwo.ca/~bbranfir/
Questions for Dr. Brian Branfireun:
When I was growing up, I wanted … to play with water. If there was water standing or flowing, I was in it. I didn't see that as a particular life ambition or career goal at the time, but I suppose it was foreshadowing.
My favourite organism is... Sphagnum moss, closely followed by pitcher plants and any variety of salamander. This is really splitting hairs because I find all living things to be extremely cool each in their own way and my answers will be different on any given day!
My first publication was about … how water, wetland soils, and microbes interact to produce methyl mercury, a potent neurotoxin. It was the second chapter of my MSc thesis that was never really supposed to have a mercury focus, but serendipity led to a fellow graduate student and I collaborating on some water quality questions with respect to mercury and voila, what remains my most highly cited paper, and something that defined the trajectory of my career to this day!
My favourite piece of research was … Perhaps 'is'. The work that we are doing now in the Hudson Bay Lowlands in northern Ontario is so exciting to me. I love being in places where we don't have a lot of information about how the environment functions. In the north, we have almost no information about how environmental change is affecting ecosystem function, so everything that we do is a discovery. Plus, we get to fly around in helicopters, which is awesome.
Biology at Western is ... diverse! I have really appreciated the variety of work that people do in the department, but most importantly the interest and support that the faculty have for each others research and the students in the program, no matter what their area of specialization. At this stage in my career I am so comfortable admitting that I am ignorant about so much, and I love learning from the faculty and students in the department.
FEATURED POSTDOC: Dr. Jason Brown
Dr. Jason Brown grew up in Aylmer, Ontario, and is a little surprised to find himself as the Helen Battle* postdoctoral Fellow. “I wasn’t really that kid who kept boxes of snakes under the bed or anything” he says “in fact, I nearly gave up on Biology in my first year at Wilfred Laurier University – my first University-level exam was a bit of a reality check, and because it was Biology, I worried that I was heading in the wrong direction.” Dr. Brown continued with biology, but discovered research in an unusual way. “The staff association was on strike in my second year, and I was upset about the impact that this was having on my classes, so I wrote a letter to the President to complain. This filtered down to the Dean, who asked to see me. By the time I went to see him, he’d pulled my transcript out, seen that I had good marks and (after a cursory discussion about the strike) suggested that I look into an NSERC USRA (Undergraduate Student Research Award). That led to two summers and an honours thesis project on flax”.
Jason’s move to Western also had some random elements. “I wanted to move to London to be close to my fiancée. I enjoyed research, but didn’t have a specific direction in mind. When I went down the list, Jim Staples had a friendly-looking photo, he was wearing a baseball cap, and I thought I could work with him”. It clearly worked out – Jason completed his MSc and PhD on hibernation physiology in the Staples lab, and will be hosted there for his Battle Fellowship, as well. “It is unusual to stay in the same place for a postdoc, but with a young family, it is great to have the opportunity to spend a little more time here” he says. “It’s important to make sure that I develop some new directions for myself, so I can establish my independence as a researcher, and obviously that is more difficult when staying in the same lab”. The Battle fellow also includes a teaching component, and Jason will be teaching 3 rd year animal physiology. “I think it’s nice to have something to break up the research and make me think about science in a broader way. It’s also great to step up to the responsibility after being a TA for so long!”
The NSERC USRA programme is alive and well at Western. Biology students with an average above 80% and a keen interest in research are encouraged to apply. Information will be available later in the term – keep an eye on the ‘undergraduate’ pages for more information.
*You can read more about Helen Battle, after whom the fellowship is named, here .
Questions for Dr. Brown:
When I was growing up, I wanted ... to be a lot of things! My mom would ask me this question every year on the first day of school, and she has a record somewhere of all my responses. I mostly remember wanting to be a meteorologist. I spent an entire summer one year forecasting the weather. I took readings of temperature, air pressure, humidity, wind, etc. every hour of the day, and even got my mom to make measurements for me when I couldn't do it. Looking back, that's the career route that I should've taken, one where I could say, "This is what I predict will happen, but I'm only 20% confident!" Imagine making scientific hypotheses that way!
LINKS TO PAST FEATURED FACULTY and STAFF
- Dr. Greg Thorn and Dr. Silke Nebel
- Dr. Nusha Keyghobadi and Dr. Leon Kurepin
- Dr. Hugh Henry and Dr. Daria Koscinski
- Dr. Charles Trick and Dr. Irena Creed
- Dr. Liana Zanette and Brenda Beretta
- Dr. Richard Gardiner and Elizabeth Myscich
- Dr. Chris Guglielmo and Ian Craig
- Dr. Beth MacDougall-Shackleton and Kim Loney
- Dr. Robert Cumming and Jacqui Griffin
- Dr. Irena Creed
- Dr. Amanda Moehring
- Dr. Brent Sinclair
- Dr. Jack Millar
- Dr. John Wiebe
- Dr. Brent Sinclair
- Dr. Greg Kelly
Check back to this page regularly as we will be highlighting news breaking research/awards by other members of our Biology Department. To find out about other research in our Department please follow the links to individual faculty web sites
This page was last updated on
November 23, 2011
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