An eye to the future

Some students begin their university careers with a blank slate before them, while others have a clear direction in mind. Count Erin Smith (BSc '12) among the latter.

She had determined well before she even stepped on campus that biology was her future, even if the University of Lethbridge was originally not her first choice university.

"I'm not going to lie, the decision to come here had a lot to do with convenience," says Smith. "My family was here and it was a chance to save some money and live at home. When we were living in Red Deer I had planned to go to Guelph University and do biology there but we moved to Lethbridge in my Grade 12 year and the U of L had a biology program too."

That decision would not only prove to be financially responsible, but opened Smith to an opportunity she might never have seen elsewhere — the chance to conduct undergraduate research with a full faculty member and leader in her field.

Erin Smith
Erin Smith (BSc '12), pictured here with an owl from the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre, turned an applied study opportunity into a possible career path.

"Dr. Theresa Burg is amazing," says Smith. "I took a couple courses with her and specifically the evolution and conservation courses she taught were awesome. I then did an applied study with her last summer, which turned out to be a great experience."

Burg works primarily with birds, using molecular markers to study various evolutionary and ecological aspects of natural populations and how they relate to physical (e.g. glaciers) and non-physical (e.g. foraging patterns) barriers. Much of her research focuses on vertebrates, examining a range of topics from mating systems, hybrization, population structure and systematics.

For Smith, the applied study work opened her up to a new world and a job at the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale.

"I was building a genetic tree using owl DNA, so I had the opportunity to gather feathers from the Birds of Prey Centre and extract DNA from them in the lab," she says, clearly enthused. "I then did genetic sequencing with them, which was really cool."

For someone who admits she never even had a budgie as a child, working with birds of prey could be intimidating but Smith has never been shy about diving in to new challenges.

"It was a huge learning curve, but Colin Weir (co-founder) and Marianne DeRocher (senior staff member) are so good with the training they help you feel comfortable with everything," says Smith.

She now handles most every bird on site, assists with the flight shows and tours, feeds the birds, breeds mice for their diets and basically does "all the gross jobs".

It's that same intrepid spirit that led her to pursue international volunteer opportunities, combining her love for wildlife conservation with the chance to help underprivileged children. Two years ago she joined the Volunteer Eco Students Abroad (VESA) organization on a trip to Ecuador where she assisted in the construction of school buildings, literacy initiatives and conservation activities. This past week she jetted to Africa for a similar tour of duty with VESA.

Needless to say, she has thrived in the U of L environment.

"I've loved how I've been able to learn here," she says. "There's a lot of expectation that you could go at it on your own but at the same time, everyone was always right there if you needed any questions answered. I found that especially in the labs, a lot of it was structured but you had the opportunity to go off on your own and do things at your own pace and in your own way."

Upon returning from Africa, Smith will spend another summer at the Birds of Prey Centre and after that, she's undecided, only that a career in wildlife conservation is her desired path.

"It's up in the air right now," she says. "I really enjoy what I'm doing out here and we'll see where I go from there."

This story first appeared in the June 2012 issue of the Legend. For a look at the entire issue in flipbook format, follow this link.