Pair named Co-op students of 2008

Hurricanes, earthquakes and landslides. It’s all in a day’s work for Helen Barrette.

The second-year arts and public administration graduate student reaches across the world to offer aid to people picking up the pieces after natural disasters.

“It really motivates you to do the best you can,” says Barrette, a co-op student with the Canadian International Development Agency’s International Humanitarian Assistance Directorate. “You think, ‘This memo I’m writing could really help these people’.”

Barrette was one of two Carleton University students named Co-op Student of the Year at a gala event held at Baker’s Grille March 3.

CIDA helps administer funding to areas with most urgent need through trusted non-governmental organizations, like the Canadian Red Cross.

“We spend a lot of time analyzing (the situation),” says Barrette of her job. “You don’t want to give all your budget to one disaster and forget about something else.”

It’s the exact situation Barrette and the directorate faced last summer when the country of Myanmar was devastated by a cyclone, causing more than 140,000 fatalities. Then, in less than a week, China was rocked by its deadliest earthquake since 1976. Nearly 70,000 people died and about another five million were left homeless.

“It can be overwhelming,” notes Barrette. “You really become aware of all the suffering around the world but you realize how much can be done.”

Eventually, Barrette would like to leave her government desk to become one of the workers on the ground, providing her services more directly to the world’s needy.

The other award winner, Shifawn O’Hara, is also doing work with potential to save lives.

The fourth-year science, biochemistry and biotechnology student joined researchers studying the link between radon gas and incidence of lung cancer.

Radon – a colourless, odourless gas most commonly found in people’s basements after seeping in through cracks in the foundation – is considered potentially hazardous to human health at high concentrations, according to Health Canada. Health Canada currently limits safe exposure at 200 becquerels (units of radioactivity) per cubic metre before remedial action is recommended. The limit is even lower in the U.S. at 150 becquerels per cubic metre.

“Now we want to look at the biological effects to see if we should lower it even more,” says O’Hara, who worked as a biologist laboratory research assistant with Health Canada during her co-op placement.

When the results of the studies are published, O’Hara hopes they will shine a light on the health effects of radon gas exposure.

Her co-op placement helped improve her grades and exposed her to a deeper understanding of the scientific concepts taught in textbooks.

“In my second year I was wondering about the techniques,” O’Hara says. Getting some real-life experience helped her better grasp the material, she adds.

“I really enjoyed the work that I did. It definitely gave me the background.”

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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