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Sarah Johnson receives 2019 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship

Congratulations to Sarah Johnson, who has received a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship for $150,000 to support her PhD program in Biological Sciences. Johnson's proposed research, A multi-faceted approach to modeling bumble bee dynamics across space and time, with applications in conservation and agricultural management, aims to help predict changes in bumble bee abundances across different climate change scenarios, thereby assisting ecologists and farmers to plan management strategies for pollination and conservation efforts. 

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May 24, 2019

Biological Sciences PhD student in the Faculty of Science

I grew up in Salmon Arm, a small town in interior British Columbia, and was afforded many opportunities to hike, camp, and observe nature, nurturing my passion for ecology and conservation early in life. I have now been working within the field of pollination ecology for almost a decade, including graduate school, teaching positions at two universities, as a field research coordinator for an agricultural biodiversity monitoring project, and as the lead pollinator conservation biologist with Wildlife Preservation Canada (a national conservation organization focused on hands-on interventions for endangered species). I received my B.Sc. Honours in Natural Science and M.Sc. in Ecology, both from the University of Calgary.

During my B.Sc., I completed a project investigating how wing wear affects bumble bee weight lifting ability, and for my M.Sc. I examined how clearcut logging affects bee-pollinated wildflower reproduction in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. I held six different teaching positions at the University of Calgary and received two teaching award nominations, and I worked my way up from assistant lab instructor to lecturer and course content developer for an introductory ecology course at Mount Royal University. At the end of my master’s, I assisted with the initiation of a large-scale research program exploring how the agricultural landscape in southern Alberta affects pollinator diversity, contributing to the development of new field methods and the supervision and mentorship of volunteers, field staff, and junior grad students. While I was lead biologist for Wildlife Preservation Canada’s Native Pollinator Initiative, I secured several large multi-year grants to support bumble bee conservation projects across the country, and independently led multiple new research and citizen science initiatives in Ontario and Alberta. Over my two-year tenure, I personally delivered 17 outreach presentations, including invited talks, event displays, bioblitzes, public training sessions, and native pollinator expertise support, reaching over 600 members of the public in both Ontario and Alberta.

I have continued to apply my passion for outreach and service since arriving back in B.C., assisting with the initiation of a pollinator citizen science program and volunteering as a bioblitz expert in the Southern Gulf Islands, helping to develop BISC graduate student workshops and participating as a student representative on our departmental graduate studies committee, and am now in the process of leading the foundation of a multidisciplinary non-profit organization focused on research, education, and conservation of native bees in British Columbia. I am currently finishing last minute preparation for my first field season, where I’ll be taking two USRA-funded field assistants to Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in central B.C. to study bumble bee community ecology in a forest fire-dominated landscape.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO COME TO SFU?

I was actually born in Burnaby, and I grew up in B.C., so a lot of my extended family live in the Greater Vancouver Area. I had been away from home for over a decade, after leaving to attend the University of Calgary for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and then moving to Ontario for my position with Wildlife Preservation Canada. So, when I decided to return for a PhD, I knew I wanted to be back in my home province. My supervisor is an emerging leader in theoretical modelling and quantitative methods in pollination systems, and through working with him I will be able to further develop my statistical skills to support my career in evidence-based conservation – this skillset is one that I knew I wanted to prioritize improving after my experience leading a conservation program for two years. 

TELL US ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH AND/OR PROGRAM.

Pollinator declines are a global concern, with evidence of the potential collapse of many populations of once-common bee species. Up to 1/3 of Canada’s native bees may be in decline, and several are critically at risk. Bees are important both for pollinating native plants and providing ecosystem services like crop pollination and food production; pollination by wild bees is worth $6 billion+ annually. There are 800+ species of native bees in Canada, 40 of which are bumble bees, but the status of many remains unknown. Bumble bee decline is of special concern to Canadians, because bumble bees are particularly well-adapted to temperate climates (they are large and covered in hair) and are pollinators of food crops (e.g., tomatoes and blueberries, both important in Canadian agriculture). My research focus lies in Canadian bumble bee conservation, and I will use a combination of field work, analysis of large datasets, and theoretical modelling to answer questions about rare species in a range of environments from agricultural to near-pristine systems. I hope to understand how habitat characteristics at different scales combine to influence bumble bee communities, and how we may be able to predict any future changes resulting from habitat shifts due to different types of disturbances, including human development, forest fire, and climate change.

WHAT ARE YOU PARTICULARLY ENJOYING ABOUT YOUR STUDIES/RESEARCH AT SFU?

SFU offers a great location, a great community, and a supportive atmosphere for me to develop new projects and connections throughout the province. I hope to stay in B.C. for the long term, and have already been granted the opportunity to work on projects with multiple collaborators from outside my lab at SFU, UVic, and UBC, am starting a field program in collaboration with BC Parks, and I get to live in one of the most beautiful cities in Canada!