This is research at Mount Royal University
Whether it has an impact on student learning, our environment or Alberta’s economy, Mount Royal’s professors are engaged in creating and sharing knowledge in and out of the classroom.
“Research, in all its forms at MRU, provides our students with opportunities to embrace and advance the most current thinking and practice in their chosen fields. It goes hand-in-hand with teaching. In addition, providing opportunities for undergraduate research is a tangible expression of Mount Royal’s commitment to personalized learning,” says Michael Quinn, PhD, Associate Vice-President, Research, Scholarship and Community Engagement at Mount Royal.
“Faculty and students work together to create and disseminate knowledge through a wide range of scholarly activities. We are committed to being a change-making institution and research is an essential element of making the world a better place,” says Quinn.
The emerging researchers profiled here are testament to the vibrant culture of scholarship that is thriving at Mount Royal.
“Their work helps us aspire to even greater things in the future,” says Quinn. “It is clear that leading edge research can be conducted at an undergraduate institution. The future of research and scholarship at MRU is very bright.”
How does ancient tree pollen connect to predicting climate change and making research available to all through open science?
Each is integral to the work of Mount Royal University’s Andria Dawson, PhD, a professor in the Department of General Education who brings together math and biology in the spirit of sharing.
“My formal training is in mathematics,” says Dawson, “but throughout my training I’ve sort of progressed into more applied mathematics, specifically working with ecologists and ecological data to try to answer questions about how the earth has changed through the past in order to better predict how climate and ecosystems are going to change in the future.”
Dawson explains that tree pollen is dispersed through the atmosphere, much of it ending up on the ground in sedimentary basins such as lakes, and then deposited on the bottom in sediment, which over time is packed down into layers. By counting and identifying the pollen data in core samples, scientists can learn what kind of trees and how many grew in a given area.“That tells us about climate because these ecosystems are responding to climate and that climate determines how much pollen those trees are producing and what kinds of trees are able to establish there,” says Dawson.
Sharing that data with other scientists can help with future research. Dawson’s passion in this area was fostered by her work with the Paleo-Ecological Observatory Network, and that goal of using the earth’s past to predict the earth’s future is something she has brought to Mount Royal. “Having a workflow that is open and reproducible is really important,” she says, adding that it can also let others challenge those results. “Now with big data, complicated models and fast computers, reproducibility - the foundation of the scientific method - requires sharing.”
With her students in courses like Gen-Ed 1101 – Mathematical and Scientific Literacy for the Modern World, Dawson is developing math and science literacy and sees her role as helping them develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
“It’s almost less about the math and science and more about thinking critically about the world around us and using evidence to inform our conclusions and arguments.”
Helping students and faculty navigate a raging river of online information, some of it fake, makes Mount Royal University an engaging environment for Erika Smith, PhD, an educational researcher focused on social media in undergraduate learning.
Smith works in the Academic Development Centre as a professor and an academic development consultant working with faculty across the university. Her area of specialty is educational technology and it is through that lens that she provides strategies for faculty, students and the broader community to better deal with a rapidly shifting digital environment.
“Today’s digital world involves a lot of minute-by-minute, second-by-second changes. Certainly with social media we see that happening, and it’s tough to navigate and to know what’s real and what’s trustworthy in an online environment and what’s fake, what might be fake news, what might be a fake account, what’s not trustworthy,” says Smith.
“As we navigate these things, all of us as digital citizens have to participate and have a responsibility in knowing: How can we leverage technology and help people and help our learning, and what are those things that hinder our learning or can hinder society? Those critical thinking skills that we develop through university learning, those things that we extend from the university to communities beyond the walls of academia - I think universities have a critical role in supporting and fostering that.”
Those community connections says Smith, can start with all disciplines, from nursing to journalism and from information design to education and beyond.
“I just love my job here at Mount Royal. I love working with these students and faculty who are really passionate about learning and about making the world a better place. So it’s really fun coming to work every day. But especially connecting teaching and research. I think we’re uniquely positioned to do that in a lot of really important ways.”
Research is something many students think of as a grad-school thing, or what professors do when they’re not teaching. But for students at Mount Royal University, research is something they can participate in now, and reap the rewards both during their undergraduate experience and down the road.
Hannah Storrs, in her third year of a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in psychology, looks at her experience as a research assistant at Mount Royal in a number of areas as a key to setting herself apart as she looks ahead to graduate school, and in the future, a career in clinical psychology.
“My dreams are to get my masters in clinical psychology and then eventually my PhD in clinical psychology,” says Storrs. “Mount Royal is helping me achieve my dream by making me a unique applicant for my applications to grad school. It’s making me stand out from students in other universities, which is huge for a student who is wanting to follow her dreams to become a PhD student.
Storrs has been involved with research in a number of areas at Mount Royal. Storrs currently works with Erika Smith, PhD, an educational researcher with the Academic Development Centre, where she focuses on mixed methods of qualitative and quantitative inquiry and learns about digital literacy. In addition, past experiences have included work with faculty in Psychology and Business.
As first step, she advises her fellow students to simply ask professors about their research areas.
“Being a research assistant lets me say I have experience in qualitative and quantitative fields. It lets me say I’m a co-author on some publications. It allows me to really stand out from most students applying. It isn’t just about GPA anymore, it’s about what you can say about the experience you have.”
Imagine looking for one iPhone in all of Canada. That’s the scale of a fentogram, a unit of measurement describing something very, very small. Using this miniscule scale, Gwen O’Sullivan, PhD, professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, can investigate industrial impact on our environment. Not a small feat.
O’Sullivan’s courses focus on air quality and air monitoring and draw on her research into chemical analysis or analytical chemistry, specifically developing methods to determine the concentration of a compound in the environment (measured in those tiny fentograms). Those techniques can be applied to multiple disciplines in environmental science.
Tree cores, for example, are a monitoring tool she is researching to see if it can determine the concentrations of air pollutants historically. The cores are useful because every year the tree will lay down a new piece of material and the composition of the tree core itself will be derived from the atmosphere in which it’s grown, “a little snapshot of what the atmospheric chemistry was in that timeframe.”
“Trees can grow for a very long time. I can’t sample now to see what happened in the 1950s, but I can analyze a tree core from 1950. It’s a way to determine what the concentration was at the time so I can age-date contamination.”
Age dating is important in determining liability for contamination on a property, for example. If a firm date of a spill or leak can be determined, it can be linked to who owned the space at the time.
“It’s also useful to see how contaminants move in the environment. If you were to take a line across from the border of Canada all the way up to the Arctic, you can look at the movement of these contaminants as they move,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s called a grasshopper effect, how they move from one latitude to the next. What you would think would be pristine in the Arctic or further north you can start to see traces of contaminants in the environment. Using things like tree cores we can date that and determine when (contaminants) arrived in that location.”
Small and medium enterprise (SME) is beautiful for Mount Royal University’s Simon Raby, a professor in the Bissett School of Business specializing in SME growth and development.
Raby argues it is SMEs that make the Alberta economy tick, and his research is focused not only on finding out more about them, the people who own them and work for them, but on how to circle back with that insight to help other businesses grow.
Raby says there are over 150,000 SMEs that make up over 90 per cent of all organizations across the province, employing nine of every ten private sector workers. Since the last recession, it is these companies that have created jobs and absorbed many experienced employees from larger firms, while other workers have struck out on their own to create entrepreneurial ventures.
“Big is often seen as beautiful and also the startup space is seen as quite sexy, so new things and particularly technology is seen as really exciting areas,” says Raby. “What tends to be left unnoticed are small or medium sized enterprises that are well established and have a proven product or service. Fundamentally they employ more people and year after year they have to innovate and evolve to grow and succeed in this challenging Alberta economy.”
Universities, he says, can act as a base of knowledge creation, offering the latest information on how these companies are performing, and how and why they thrive, through a range of research. Ideally the outcome is knowledge that other businesses can use to examine and refine how they achieve growth. Most recently Raby and his students have looked into ‘high-impact’ SMEs, those firms achieving growth, disrupting existing markets and diversifying.
“I involve students as much as I can in research activity. They bring a fresh, unfettered perspective that tests and challenges current thinking. In turn they learn so much from the business community by questioning business leaders and business professionals on the way they operate and achieve performance,” says Raby. “For us that’s fundamentally important because we have to understand how people and organizations work, knowledge we must bring back into our everyday teaching and our research programs.”
The reach of medieval history is evident in today’s popular culture with TV shows like Game of Thrones, movies like Lord of the Rings and games like Assassin’s Creed borrowing heavily from the history books.
But ancient and medieval history can inform students in far more important ways, too, and modern protest movements like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More inspire how Mount Royal University humanities professor Emily Hutchison, PhD, researches medieval Paris and imparts critical skills to her classes.
Hutchison’s period of study is the late 14th and early 15th centuries, particularly medieval Paris during this violent and tumultuous period that saw a number of revolts and the beginning of a civil war. She studies the elites and their relationship to the lower classes and efforts to police or otherwise control them, and the response of those lower classes, or the Third Estate, especially their use of spaces in the city to give voice to their struggles.
“The studies that I have undertaken on medieval Paris can teach us a lot about how people move and operate in a city underneath the radar and how people seek to contest the attempts to limit them and control them, how people seek to challenge the oppressive systems that privilege some groups and oppress others,” says Hutchison. “It can teach us a lot about intersectionality: the intersections of privilege, race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion. All of these things converge to create a set of privileges that are fully operational in a city like medieval Paris and remain so in a city like Calgary.”
Hutchison tries to show through her research, and while teaching her pre-modern European courses, that history is written by the dominant classes or groups and that for every official narrative like those from medieval Paris that often painted lower classes as uneducated “beasts,” there are other stories that tell another side.
“What I try to teach my students is to pay attention to what is written and how it’s constructed but also what is excluded, what is left out of the historical record and where those voids exist, to try to think about ways that we can fill the gaps of our knowledge. How can we look at those sources in a different light to try to reconstruct the lived experiences of those who are otherwise silenced?”