Alum of the Month: Erin Catherall

December 13, 2018 - 9:45am

Erin Catherall refuses to choose between science and art. After finishing a Fine Arts degree from the University of British Columbia at 25, she wasn’t sure what to do next. In the end, inspiration came to her from a project she participated in during her fourth year at UBC. Working with a medical student named Samantha whose undergraduate degree combined Visual Arts and Science, Catherall helped organize a community art project in the Downtown Eastside area. She saw how Samantha’s well-rounded background provided a more holistic perspective to engaging and working with community members, and was inspired to enroll in Vancouver Island University’s Biology program.

While at VIU, at the urging of Biology Professor Dr. Caroline Josefsson, Catherall researched the genetic diversity in Garry oak tree populations in the Nanaimo region. Her paper detailing the research was published by the peer-reviewed Canadian journal, Botany, in January 2018, an accomplishment VIU Biology Professor Dr. Jamie Gorrell says few undergraduate students in Canada ever achieve.

“Erin worked tirelessly through the ups and downs of lab work while writing her paper,” he says. “I am very proud of her success and hope future students look up to her as they pursue their own projects.”

Now 30, Catherall works as a Communications and Engagement Specialist for the BC Wildfire Service, combining skills learned in both undergraduate degrees. She plans to return to school to pursue a graduate degree.


What was a highlight of your time at VIU?

My experience working with Dr. Gorrell through the Biology 491 – Undergraduate Research Projects course was, without a doubt, one of the most educational and rewarding experiences I have had in either of my undergraduate degrees. During this one-year course, I completed an independent research project, which provided an opportunity for advanced training in scientific methodology and developing my lab techniques. Dr. Gorrell worked with me during the summer of 2017, on his own time, to help prepare my paper for journal submission. With his support, my writing skills and aptitude for academic research blossomed. 

Tell us about your independent research project.

I studied the differences in genetic diversity of Garry oak trees by looking at different populations and at trees of different ages to see if genetic diversity changes across space and/or time. I used the diameter of the trees to separate small trees from big trees, assuming that small trees were younger than big trees and I did this for four different populations around the Nanaimo region. I crushed up leaves from each tree to get DNA and analyzed six different genetic markers to get a unique genetic fingerprint for each individual. Combining individuals together then tells me the genetic diversity for each group or population.

My results indicate that there is high diversity within populations but that there is only a small amount of difference between populations. Trees in Neck Point Park are not different from those at Piper’s Lagoon, and these two populations are only slightly different from trees at Cable Bay south of Nanaimo. I also found no difference in genetic diversity between young and old populations, suggesting that the young trees were not genetically different from previous generations. Together these findings indicate that these populations have been able to exchange genes back and forth across the landscape and over time. These results are important because they show that Garry oaks have not lost genetic diversity over time, even though their populations are endangered. Hopefully they have enough genetic diversity to adapt to future climate change.


What have you been up to since graduating from VIU?

I am currently working for BC Wildfire Service as a Communications and Engagement Specialist. Every summer, I am deployed to various fires in the province, where I manage all engagement and communication needs associated with the incident, including consulting and liaising with Indigenous communities, local governments, stakeholders and the public to help identify critical priorities and deliver accurate, up-to-date information.


How has your VIU education helped you with what you’re doing now?

I am heavily involved with some of the ongoing prevention initiatives in the province. This includes helping to develop a standard operating procedure and policy for proponents wishing to conduct prescribed burns in BC, and looking at fire behaviour in relationship to FireSmart practices for homeowners and local communities. These activities all use science in an applied manner. I often draw on my past ecology and botany courses when working on natural resource projects. I also have the strong research and writing skills needed to complete my daily work tasks.


Can you give us one random fact about yourself?

I tasted the legendary Dawson City Sourtoe Cocktail (a.k.a. a shot of whiskey with an unusual accompaniment - a mummified human toe).

Tags: Our Alumni

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