Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

StFX student Lynsay Spafford wins outstanding student paper award at major international conference

January 31st, 2017
Lynsay Spafford

A StFX student has been singled out for outstanding research at the largest earth and space science meeting in the world.

Lynsay Spafford, a fourth year honours environmental sciences student with a biology concentration, attended the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco in December, where she presented her undergraduate research on how lakes process carbon.

Now, she’s learned she’s won an Outstanding Student Paper Award at this major international conference. The awards are given to the top three to five per cent of student presentations. About 15,000-20,000 people present at the conference. The vast majority are masters and PhD students.

“This is a tremendous achievement,” says StFX earth sciences professor and supervisor Dr. Dave Risk. 

“The AGU is the world's super meeting for earth and environmental sciences, with 25,000 attendees, most professional scientists. Undergrad presenters are extremely rare and Lynsay would have been competing with MSc and PhD students from around the world. But she's a fantastic and hardworking student, with a fantastic and novel multi-year research study.” 

Ms. Spafford, a graduate of Edwin Parr Composite High School in Athabasca, AB, says she was shocked to learn she had won. “I was so grateful just to have gone to the AGU, and to be judged by three professional researchers, and then to win this award…I felt blown away.”

“The AGU was incredible and I feel so fortunate,” she says.

The award is given for a combination of science and communication. The judges singled out her presentation for her novel study, approach and technique, that she included a lot of data, and that she asked for feedback and ways to improve her work.

Ms. Spafford has been working as a research assistant in Dr. Risk’s Flux Lab since the start of her second year at StFX. For the past two years, she has been researching the carbon release from lakes. She started with a pilot lake in Cape Breton and has moved her equipment to Lochaber Lake.

Her pure research that she presented at the AGU involves measuring lake-atmosphere CO2 exchange at high temporal frequency, to understand the carbon dynamics of local lakes. She designed and built the monitoring systems, involving multiplexed valves and sensors, with floating chambers and a control sequence to pull gases into the analyzer. She has an array of additional temperature and radiation sensors, which help her establish the drivers of net ecosystem respiration. The system has been running now for two years in different lakes, where she has been able to track photosynthesis and respiration in the lake, and the impact of storms on productivity.

Ms. Spafford says lakes are carbon gateways with immense processing capacity, acting as either sinks or sources for CO2.

As climate change exacerbates weather extremes, carbon stored within permafrost and soils is liberated to water systems, altering aquatic carbon budgets and light availability for photosynthesis. The functional response of lakes to climate change is uncertain, and continuous data of lake respiration and drivers are lacking, she says.

She wanted to determine how different zones of the lake contributed to the entire lake carbon budget and to better understand how lakes process carbon. She says she had some interesting results, including finding more CO2 production near the shore, the opposite of what she expected to find.

Ms. Spafford says attending the AGU was an amazing experience, providing her with exposure to top scientists and experts in her field, the chance to interact with people from all over the world, and to gain exposure to a variety of research techniques. It also helped solidify her changes for job opportunities, scholarships and master’s study.

StFX, she says, has been well beyond her expectations for an undergraduate experience.


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