Taking research beyond the lab

When most people envision "Neuroscientist", they see the white lab coat, the microscope, sterile research laboratories and diagrams of the nervous system.

However, if they met Sarah Hewitt, they would see something quite different.

Sarah Hewitt Triangle Island
Mount Royal Professor and 'embedded scientist', Sarah Hewitt.

Their image would be of a person clinging to a slippery rock in the driving rain in the middle of the night, or outrunning a forest fire armed with nothing but a headlamp, notebook and camera.

Hewitt, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, combines her passion for scientific research with her love of adventure and writing to document once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Hewitt volunteers her services to research teams in far-flung locations as an assistant, with the provision that she can document her experience for popular magazines and publications.

Her work has already paid dividends, with her photojournalism appearing in Scientific American, the world's second-largest science publication.

Having traveled to Belize to document research on spider monkeys during a massive forest fire and just last summer, living on an island so remote that it is only accessible by helicopter, Hewitt is already gearing up for her next adventure.

"I've always loved popular science writing," says Hewitt, now safely ensconced in her tidy office after last summer's adventure. "Sometimes, the work we do in research is difficult to translate into intelligible and relevant information for people outside of academia.

"Being able to work as an 'embedded scientist' - as a research assistant - gives me the chance to contribute meaningfully to these research projects while working on my own material. I can understand the science behind things in a way that a journalist may not be able to, while at the same time telling the story in a way that makes sense."

Journey to the end of Canada

Hewitt's latest trip took her to Triangle Island, the outermost of the Scott Islands, more than 45 kilometres off the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island, and 10 km west of its nearest neighbour, Sartine Island. Situated near the northern limits of the California Current oceanographic zone and facing some of the most extreme weather on Canada's West Coast, Triangle Island supports the largest and most diverse seabird colony in British Columbia.

Due to the fragility of the ecosystem and the challenge of actually transporting people to the island, three teams of four are given only two weeks a year to conduct their studies. Hewitt joined three other researchers from Environment Canada, tasked with studying some of the island's local bird population. Leaving June 6 when the weather was clear enough for the helicopter to fly, Hewitt and her team had to transport all of their equipment, supplies and food to last for the 2-week minimum, as well as fishing rods to catch extra protein.

"When you come to Triangle Island from the air, it's just completely awesome," says Hewitt. "You follow along these low-slung green bumps that are the Scott Island archipelago, and suddenly this massive peak with sheer cliffs around most sides is just jutting out the ocean.

"You land on a patch of grass next to the cabin - a postage stamp-sized bit of land that is the only flat part of the entire island. You hop out, grab your gear and when the helicopter's gone, that's your last connection with the outside world for the entire trip."

Sarah Hewitt Triangle Island
Hewitt's cabin is located on the edge of the bay to the left, the flattest spot on the entire island.

Island life - sand and sun not included

Conditions on the island were incredibly rustic; the cabin had only two rooms with a pair of bunk beds, and every square inch is covered in research material, enormous spiders and mementos from previous research teams. Sleep was difficult to come by, as well; some of the research was performed in the dead of night.

Canada's largest rookery of sea lions made its home on the rocks nearby and enormous mice would use the cabin for shelter, travelling across Hewitt's sleeping bag as part of their nightly commute.

Some days were spent trapped in the cabin, as driving rain and whipping winds made the island too dangerous to risk venturing far. With no running water, the only source of fresh water was a 20 minute walk away across a treacherous rock-strewn beach and the only other structure on the island being an old outhouse with a basketball hoop attached, vanity and privacy were luxuries the team could ill afford.

Sarah Hewitt Triangle Island
Ernesto, the team's resident Elepant Seal.
Despite the spartan conditions, Hewitt couldn't have been happier, loving the teamwork and spirit she shared with her fellow researchers.

"Here I am, working in incredibly close quarters with people I have never met, and it was just a blast," she says. "The people from Environment Canada are used to working in teams - they know that they need to look out for one another as you are absolutely trapped together for this time period.

"Every morning, I'd sit in front of the cabin with a cup of coffee on a makeshift deck made of driftwood with old buoys for seats. I'm surrounded by crashing waves; to my left is a sea lion rookery and to my right a bay stretching out to a rocky outcropping swarming with puffins.

Often my only company was our resident elephant seal, Ernesto. It is nice to be in a place where humans have such a small presence and haven't messed things up."

Research that's for the birds

Sarah Hewitt Triangle Island
An adult Black Oystercatcher.

The team's research focused on monitoring nesting sites and chick progress. Throughout her stint on the island, the team studied Black Oystercatchers, Cassin's Auklets (of which approximately 50 per cent of the world's population resides on Triangle Island) and the Glaucous-winged Gull.

Studying the Cassin's Auklets proved a challenging task. The football-sized seabirds build their nests by digging into incredibly steep hillsides, creating a well-camouflaged home for more than 500,000 birds. To track the progress of the chicks, Hewitt and her team had to climb up to the nesting sites, reach arm's length into holes filled with half-digested fish and guano and extract the tiny fluffy chicks hiding inside.

The team would sometimes "band" the adult birds, placing rings on their legs to monitor and track the population, or extract food samples from their throats to study their diet. The adult Auklets leave their nests at first light to fish, so this work took place overnight - climbing over slippery rocks and hills with only a headlamp to catch birds.

"The best moment was around 4:30 a.m. just as the sun was starting to rise," said Hewitt. "We'd climb down to the bottom of the hill and lay flat; the Auklets would come bursting out of their nests at the top of the hill, buzz the ground and scream overhead like fighter jets.

Sarah Hewitt Triangle Island
Black Oystercatcher chick.

"We had to wear hard hats and keep low to the ground because they fly at such tremendous speed that when one hits you it's like taking a punch from a boxer. They barely notice you're there - it's an awesomely inconsequential feeling."

Another project the team participated in was located on Puffin Rock - a massive outcropping reachable only during low tide. To climb the rock, the team had to scramble up a steep cliff with virtually no rope assists to a plateau from which they could reach the nesting sites of the Glaucous-winged Gulls and observe Tufted Puffins and Common Murres. The Common Murre looks like a flying penguin and nests on incredibly steep open cliff faces that point seaward. They lay bright blue eggs and their chick success rate is very low, making them endangered and susceptible to predation.

Telling science stories on campus and off

Hewitt is committed to continuing her work and leveraging her experiences back to the campus and classroom. Stressing writing and communication in her own classes, guest-lecturing in Ecology classes and presenting at her faculty's colloquium, Hewitt still finds time to plan her next adventure. She has a number of other opportunities coming soon, including a project that combines her love of motorcycling with her desire to teach Albertans more about their natural world.

"The concept of scholarship is broadly defined at Mount Royal," says Hewitt. "This gives me the opportunity to get out and do something exciting and show my students that the life of a scientist doesn't have to be spent just in the lab or in the office."

- Colin Brandt, Oct. 18, 2012