August 26, 2011
A researcher at the University of Northern British Columbia has been recognized for her work with arctic communities and for her respect for the traditional knowledge of northern peoples. Sonja Ostertag, a PhD candidate in the Natural Resources and Environmental Science program at UNBC, was recently honoured by the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program and the Northern Contaminants Program at the International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant. Ostertag was one of two students recognized at the international event with the Student Northern Mercury Research Award.
Ostertag conducts her research on remote Hendrickson Island, 30 km west of Tuktoyaktuk. Her work involves a five-year study of potential neurochemical behaviour changes of beluga whales in response to increasing mercury levels in the region.
“Without the traditional knowledge of the local hunters, who often have decades of experience tracking and hunting the whales, it would have been impossible to determine what normal behaviour is for a beluga,” says Ostertag, who is in her second year of PhD studies. “The value of their experience and observations have been important both to me and my research.”
While the local communities work to preserve their traditional knowledge, they were also keen to expose Inuit students to new advancements in research and education. In 2008, Ostertag joined a group of researchers from across Canada who hired local students to work alongside them. “It is not possible to receive a high school diploma in Tuktoyaktuk and travelling to other communities to further your education is difficult,” says Ostertag. “We really wanted to involve these students in ways that would be meaningful for them.” The students worked alongside Ostertag and became proficient in identifying organs and taking samples from the belugas. Several of the students have gone on to pursue further research and post-secondary education.
Ostertag was honoured for her respectful efforts working with the arctic communities, her acknowledgement of the importance of belugas to northern residents, and for the inclusion of traditional knowledge in her work.