Probing beneath the surface

While you cannot see individual waves of light, they collectively compose a spectrum that allows our eyes to perceive emerald hills and brilliant blue oceans.

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Digital photography has opened up ways of capturing light and colour far beyond what the human eye detects, but traditional formatting methods (like JPG) have limited the information the camera preserves to keep files small, explains University of Lethbridge alumnus Christopher Myhr (BFA '08).

This changed several years ago with the emergence of RAW: a format that captures unadulterated digital images in still photography. The result? Greater editing options and the ability to shoot images that were previously too difficult or expensive.

While professionals jumped on board, academia and the art community has been slow to explore RAW's full range of possibilities. Myhr has been working to fill this void. As an undergraduate student in the Department of Art, he systematically explored the tool's technical possibilities, largely by incorporating new techniques in his own works. His accomplishments earned him the J. Armand Bombadier CGS Masters Award.

This fall he'll start his master's degree at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where he hopes to examine RAW's impact on society and the art world.

"Essentially, digital technology is now ubiquitous – it's everywhere. I'm interested in looking at how tools like RAW are affecting people and the history of photography," he says.

Like Myhr, Craig Wheaton has focused his studies on an often overlooked subject: the creation of biodegradable plastic.

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Wheaton, a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is working to develop catalysts – chemicals that trigger particular reactions – involved in the creation of polylactide polymer.

Derived from renewable resources like wheat and corn, the plastic is currently on the market (it can be found in certain kinds of food packaging), but there's a need to create cheaper, more efficient ways of producing it. A better chemical catalyst can make this happen, says Wheaton, who recently earned a doctoral scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

"I really believe in the development of plastics made from renewable resources - this is a sustainable way of developing materials. I'm really quite interested in environmental issues, and I would like to do a little bit to make a difference if I can."

Wheaton, who published six times as an undergraduate and master's student, chose doctoral studies at the U of L over larger institutions. "It has a good balance between the resources of a large school and the atmosphere and learning environment of a small school."

Ambra Gullacher has also aligned her academic career with a strong drive to make a difference. The undergraduate health sciences student is gearing up for a career in nursing and says recent research experience has changed her view of the profession.

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Gullacher has been participating in an interdisciplinary, international research study of the impact of wildfires on rural communities. Led by nursing researcher Dr. Judith Kulig, the research team represents a wide range of disciplines and locations (Canada, the U.S. and Australia).

"What we're looking at, on a community collective scale, is what has t

he community's response to the fire been both immediately and in the aftermath?" says Gullacher. Gullacher has been working as an undergraduate project leader on a program examining two communities which experienced wildfires in the last decade: La Ronge, Sask., and Barriere, B.C. In 2003, Barriere was evacuated for a month when forest fires ripped through BC's interior. La Ronge was affected by forest fires in 1999, though the impact has been long-lasting. "Some people talk about it as if it happened yesterday," she says.

While the SSHRC-funded research is ongoing, some themes have already emerged.

"A lot of people have identified a sense of community as a factor in resiliency," she says. "When you live in a community that's smaller and is farther away from the city or other services, you're more dependent on each other. And because of that dependence, there's a bond there."

She's been amazed to discover that in some ways, the fires ben

efited the communities.

In Barriere, a mill where most of the community worked was slated to be shut down before the fire, and property values were expected to plummet.

When the fire destroyed the mill, it didn't re-open, but ex-employees received insurance and relief money from the loss of their homes, and were able to either relocate or rebuild.

"There's been a bit of a rejuvenation – a reclaiming of the community's sense of pride and spirit – whereas before there was a sense that things were going downhill."

Gullacher's work has earned her a Canadian Institutes for Health Research Health Professional Student Research Award and an Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research Summer Studentship Award. It's also taught her that health isn't just a matter of physical well-being; it's impacted greatly by how a community affects people emotionally and socially.

"Being able to see how a community works together, and how it acts as its own little organism gives me a better perspective."