Convocation: Carleton Biology graduate puts degree to work studying sockeye salmon in B.C.

Carleton graduate Nicholas Burnett is researching the impact the hydroelectric dams have on migrating fish. He is receiving his Master of Science in Biology. (Photo provided by Nicholas Burnett)

Nicholas Burnett is not your typical biology student.

When the 24-year-old Victoria, B.C. native graduates this month with his Master of Science degree, it will be a huge accomplishment due to his physical distance from his supervisor, Carleton Biology Prof. Steven Cooke.

Prior to leaving for British Columbia for field work, Burnett worked for three months in Cooke’s Carleton lab, and planned out much of his thesis during that time. Once in B.C., Cooke frequently travelled west to meet with Burnett and supervise his work. The pair also routinely attended workshops and conferences together as Burnett worked on his thesis.

Burnett was a “stellar student” with full external scholarship support – a big factor that allowed him to complete his master’s in B.C. He became interested in studying at Carleton while completing his undergrad at Queen’s University. Burnett met Cooke while taking a field course researching Pacific salmon.

“It was strange to be working on a degree from the other side of the country,” he said. “But my supervisors at Carleton and UBC were very supportive throughout the entire process.”

Burnett now works as a research biologist for UBC’s Pacific Salmon Ecology and Conservation Laboratory. Working with B.C. Hydro and the St’át’imc First Nation at the Seton Dam in Lillooet, B.C., Burnett is part of a project that studies the impact of a diversion dam on the spawning migrations of sockeye salmon. Part of this research involves placing tags into the stomachs of the salmon that monitor their swimming activity.

Overall, Burnett’s research aims to better understand the impact high flows have on the salmon reaching their spawning grounds upstream.

For Burnett, knowing his work impacts so many different people is a satisfying experience.

“My research involved a lot of meetings with various stakeholders and user groups,” he said. “It has been rewarding to know that the results of my research are of direct interest to so many different people.”

Burnett’s research is important for responsible fishery management in watersheds that are regulated by dam facilities.

As for the future, Burnett has another year of work on his research but sees a future in environmental consulting in Vancouver.

“I think the last couple years earning my degree and doing this research have given me a solid and diverse skill set that will benefit me down the road,” Burnett said. “I think consulting work will let me continue to build on those in the future.”

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