‘Some are quick to judge that having industry partners means weaker science’

30 Jan 2019

Wildlife biologist Philippe Thomas. Image: Environment and Climate Change Canada

Wildlife biologist Philippe Thomas is travelling across rural Canada to track pollution.

PhD candidate Philippe Thomas studies at the University of Ottawa in Canada and is also working with Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country’s national wildlife research centre. You can follow his video diary through the oil sands region here.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Being born and raised on a family-operated dairy farm in Canada nurtured a sense of curiosity and appreciation for the natural environment. Our family’s livelihood and ability to harvest crops depended on being able to properly understand and work with Mother Nature in order to reap her benefits.

My parents and family instilled in me the importance of being connected to our natural environment. I’ve always known that I wanted to work with wildlife, domesticated or wild. After a master’s of science degree at the University of Northern British Columbia, including time living in remote wilderness areas and studying avian movement patterns in the Rocky Mountains, I was hooked.

Having the opportunity to see and study wildlife in their natural environment, and bearing witness to some incredible sights – such as a cow moose giving birth, wolves chasing down and preying on a coyote, and a sow grizzly bear and her cubs sliding down an avalanche chute in the mountains – this only reinforced in me the desire to contribute to wildlife conservation.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Most of my time is occupied studying the impacts of industrial contaminants on the health of fur-bearing mammals (including North American river otter, among others) in oil- and gas-impacted areas, such as in the oil sands region in Alberta, Canada. My work involves the collection of hunter- and trapper-harvested mammals, necropsies and pathology evaluations, tissue dissections, and trace contaminant analyses in these animals.

We are especially interested in the impacts of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants on the health of exposed wildlife. The work is in large part conducted in collaboration with local indigenous communities, and hunting/trapping organisations such as the Alberta Trappers’ Association.

Traditional indigenous knowledge is central to what I do; it informs the experimental design and provides context under which my science is generated. Indigenous community members are trained and hired to participate in our research programme. Most recently, these efforts have culminated in an accredited training-to-employment and business development project that supports access of indigenous peoples to local jobs in environmental monitoring, and contributes to strong ecological stewardship in their communities.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

My research is important as it provides valuable information to traditional land users who rely on healthy environments for subsistence, either for clean food and water, for traditional cultural practices, or for economic livelihood.

The data generated is also used by industry, policy and regulatory bodies for risk assessment exercises. Most importantly, the work supports Environment and Climate Change Canada’s mandate to protect Canadians and their environment from the threats of chemical pollutants, and to help protect and restore the natural environment for present and future generations.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

My work provides industry with information on the impacts of their emissions on the health of neighbouring wildlife. This data can be integrated in adaptive management programmes to inform remedial and mitigation measures. Biomarker endpoints developed in my programme can also be transferred to industry groups to be used as tools to evaluate and monitor the environment they operate under.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

There are a few. One of the biggest challenges is that, unlike controlled laboratory exposure studies, wildlife in the environment are exposed to sub-lethal levels of complex mixtures of chemicals under chronic exposure scenarios, with multiple confounding factors that could influence organismal response. Determining dose-response relationships then becomes a challenge.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Some are quick to judge that as soon as you collaborate with an industry partner, that your science suddenly becomes weaker – this is based on a perceived bias. I hold myself to the highest ethical standards in the field, and I was trained to have a multidisciplinary view of the world.

I believe that the strongest science is generated under inclusive frameworks that bring together all the relevant players and stakeholders to the table. I want my science to be useful to end users.

I do not like to work in a silo, and I want to make sure that the information I generate can help in addressing concerns shared between indigenous, industry and special interest groups. It is extremely satisfying to generate information that is valued and helpful to multiple stakeholders.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

The ecotoxicological assessment of complex chemical mixtures in the environment would be the main area of research that I’d like to see tackled in the years ahead.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.