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Scholarship recipient balances academia with community engagement

Graduate studies can be very demanding and time-consuming, yet throughout her PhD, Irini Soubry found time to participate in mentorship programs and organize activities for fellow students. Find out more about this year’s scholarship recipient from the University of Saskatchewan.

Esri Canada GIS Scholarships are awarded each to students across Canada. The work they submit clearly demonstrates that there are excellent programs using geospatial technology in all provinces. And yet, when this year’s recipient from the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Saskatchewan submitted her scholarship documents and I saw her previous degrees were from universities in Greece, I couldn’t help wondering: Why Saskatchewan? (Maybe it’s a sign that I’ve been watching too many Corner Gas reruns!)

I reached out to Irini Soubry to find out what had drawn her to the Land of Living Skies and to find out more about the different programs she’s been involved with at the University of Saskatchewan

There are a lot of universities in Canada, and across the world, where you can earn degrees in geography. After completing your undergraduate and master’s degrees in Greece, why did you choose the University of Saskatchewan to do your PhD?

Choosing the University of Saskatchewan (USask) was a combination of things. First and foremost, I wanted to join my husband, who had already started his PhD at USask in Agricultural Economics at the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and was very pleased with the university and his program. Second, I found a call for PhD’s at the Department of Geography and Planning related to research in the grassland ecosystem using remote sensing. The research group under Dr. Xulin Guo is very active and I felt that my previous work in environmental management using geomatics was closely related to the group’s research. Lastly, USask offered good scholarship opportunities to cover my studies. I received a Dean’s Doctoral Scholars award for the first 3 years of my program and a Teacher-Scholar Doctoral Fellowship for the last year.

You list FYRE as one of the projects you were involved with. What is FYRE, and what was your role as a Research Coach for FYRE?

FYRE stands for First Year Research Experience. It is a program that has been offered in multiple first year courses across a variety of disciplines at USask since 2013. As a Research Coach, my main role was as a peer or near-peer student mentor to guide undergraduate students through aspects of a first-year research project and support student research skill development. The FYRE component usually lasts about 13 weeks and follows the research cycle, from question, to investigation, to sharing.

My work mainly centered around delivering course-wide seminars and materials on research skills, and one-on-one or group feedback and guidance. Overall, I found tremendous benefits from this experience, and that is why I took on three Research Coach positions between 2021 and 2022. During this period, our FYRE supervisor partnered with six other Research Coaches and myself to write an article about the benefits and challenges that Research Coaches face through FYRE

You’ve been involved in the Graduate Student Association (GSA) at USask and your department’s Graduate Student Council almost since you started your PhD. I know from experience that that can take up a lot of time and energy.  Why did you choose to become involved, and how do you balance your responsibilities there with your research?

My first involvement with the GSA at USask was on the Sustainability Committee, where I was a general member during my first year as a PhD student. Because I am very passionate about the environment and our planet, I wanted to find an organization on campus to inspire sustainable living for students. Being on the committee was very fulfilling as I met a diversity of students from across campus and facilitated the organization of a sustainability awareness event for students. The time commitment for the Sustainability Committee was manageable, so I was able to focus on the preparation of my research proposal, which was my priority at the time.

The following year, I chose to get more involved in my department’s student council, where I was the GSA alternate (attending monthly GSA meetings in case the GSA representative of our council was not available). Again, the responsibility and time commitment for that role was low, which allowed me to focus on my comprehensive exams, field work and the publication of my first research papers during the second year of my PhD.

I had more flexibility and time once my core PhD course commitments and exams were fulfilled; so in my 3rd year of studies, I became the vice-president of our department’s graduate student council, assisting with presidential duties. I wanted to give back to the students in the department and get them to socialize more and enjoy life beyond studies and research. This is a struggle for all graduate students, as we are isolated and don’t have that many opportunities to get to know each other and spend quality time together. When the president of the student council graduated, I became president of the graduate council. It was a hard time, since this happened during the pandemic and students were less involved and connected within the department. We did manage to arrange some online events, but overall participation was low.

When I took a parental leave during the 4th year of my PhD to take care of my newly born son, the graduate student council fell apart and not much happened during that year. Luckily, when I came back in September 2023, graduate students expressed interest in joining the student council, and we have been able to organize many events and seminars for the students and secure a study and meeting room. I am very grateful for this. Being president this year was definitely the most time-consuming position. However, being at the end of my studies, with most of the thesis already written, allowed me to take on that responsibility. I ended my duties in April and I am positive that the student council will expand more next year and that it will continue to deliver benefits to the graduate students of our department.

In addition to your volunteer positions, you were teaching last term; I saw your post on LinkedIn about having lined up several guest speakers for your GEOG423 class. How did you get into teaching, and what do you think the benefits are of inviting guests to speak to university classes?

As part of the Teacher-Scholar Doctoral Fellowship that I received this academic year, I first learned a lot about university teaching by taking GPS 982 Mentored Teaching, which is a class designed for PhD students who received this fellowship and is offered by the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning. I then taught Advanced Remote Sensing (GEOG423) as a sessional lecturer. Overall, the fellowship has been an incredibly enriching experience. 

I believe that including guest lectures in university courses is beneficial in many ways. First, students learn how the science you are teaching them is applied in the real world. Second, students get to know, ask questions to, and connect with top researchers in the field. Third, students can get inspired by the lecture content and apply similar tools, technology, and methods to their own class projects. Fourth, they get to see what an effective presentation looks like and apply those skills to their own final project presentation to the class. Lastly, as an instructor, you get to share the power and let people who are experts on certain topics explain the theory and applications in a much more effective way than how you might explain them.

The project you submitted for the scholarship is on woody plant expansion in native grasslands. Why is it important to study this, and to preserve grasslands?

Grasslands are one of the largest ecosystems globally, providing vital global ecological and economic ecosystem services, such as water flow regulation, carbon sequestration, climate mitigation, habitat provision, and forage supply. However, as studies have shown, grasslands are sensitive to disturbance and invasion, and prone to rapid functional collapse. Nearly half of the global grasslands are degraded due to intense human activity and climate change. Woody plant expansion (WPE) has become the second most significant cause of grassland loss after land conversion to cropping in the Great Plains Biome of North America. Grassland conversion to crops is obvious, but WPE is subtle and can become difficult to reverse even with timely management actions. WPE affects grassland ecology, its ability to produce food for livestock, its habitat for wildlife, and the economic return for rangeland managers. Despite the risk that ranchers face -- we are the species at risk -- there is no clear understanding of how much grassland is affected by WPE, and how it affects the economy and the environment.

Long-term monitoring and modelling of grassland status can facilitate grassland restoration, as can the study of factors that influence grassland dynamics (e.g., grazing, fire, land use, climate). Therefore, in my research I am looking at GIS and remote sensing approaches to detect WPE in grasslands, investigate factors driving WPE, and identify areas at risk or vulnerable to WPE to enable optimal grassland management, leading to stable grassland habitat. My long-term objective is to achieve high-quality ecosystem services while maintaining sustainable and healthy grassland ecosystems. To date, I’ve published papers on the optimal season and spectral regions for shrub cover estimation, spectral separation of shrubs in grasslands, and on their connection to potential drivers , as well as other related topics.

What are your plans, now that you’ve completed your PhD?

I am jumping right into a remote sensing research scientist position here at USask within the Department of Geography and Planning. Our research group recently received funding from the Canadian Space Agency to undertake a 3-year project that looks at enhancing woody plant encroachment detection in grasslands using multi-source Earth observation (EO) data as part of the “Research Opportunities in Satellite EO”. We were one of the 17 projects selected from post-secondary institutions.

By leveraging advanced technology and diverse satellite imagery, the project seeks to develop methods to accurately estimate woody plant cover, detect WPE at an early stage, investigate driving factors, and identify vulnerable regions. In addition, I will be working alongside my husband (Lampros Nikolaos Maros), who will be looking at assessing the economic and environmental benefits of WPE detection on Canadian grasslands. Our overall goal is to provide a comprehensive understanding of and methodologies for WPE detection and impacts.

I am really looking forward to being part of a wonderful project team and to seeing how this project will turn out!

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Specialist with Esri Canada. Her career in GIS started when she came across the Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering program at the University of New Brunswick and thought it sounded interesting. She earned a PhD in Geomatics Engineering, focusing on lidar data classification, and now she supports teaching and learning with ArcGIS at colleges and universities across Canada. Krista particularly enjoys interacting with the students who receive an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship or apply for the Esri Young Scholars Award each year. She also enjoys playing with apps and doing a bit of coding when she has time.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins