Geography and planning PhD candidate Caroline Aubry-Wake is pictured on the Athabasca Glacier in July 2020. (Photo: Robin Heavens)

NSERC CREATE for Water Security leaves lasting impact

As a unique water security training program wraps up at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), the program’s leaders look back on the past six years as an overwhelming success.

By Chris Putnam
Dr. Cherie Westbrook (PhD) is director of the NSERC CREATE for Water Security at USask. (Photo: Submitted)

“The students went beyond even what I and the rest of the team members had imagined,” said Dr. Cherie Westbrook (PhD), director of the NSERC CREATE for Water Security.

The NSERC CREATE for Water Security is a USask-led initiative funded through the Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program of the federal Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Launched in 2015 with a $1.65-million NSERC grant, the program provides career-focused skills training to graduate students and post-doctoral fellows studying water security.

“What we’re trying to do is train people across the broad field of water security—kind of blurring those lines between research and practice and helping students develop personal and professional skills so that they’re ready for whatever career in whatever sector they’re interested in,” said Westbrook, a professor in the College of Arts and Science’s Department of Geography and Planning.

Originally planned to conclude in 2021, the NSERC CREATE for Water Security has been extended until March 2022 due to COVID-19. However, most of the program’s activities will wind down by this fall.

Students in the program take practical courses and are provided funding to expand their skills through professional development training, internships and laboratory exchanges.

“I think PhD programs do a great job at training us to become scientists, but there’s not always an emphasis on developing the other skills that we need as professionals. The CREATE program allows you to get that hands-on training that is really helpful,” said Caroline Aubry-Wake, a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Planning who is nearing completion of the NSERC CREATE for Water Security.

More than 60 students and four post-doctoral fellows have participated in the program. Alumni have gone on to jobs with governments, First Nations, non-profits and private companies. Others have accepted faculty positions at universities or founded their own consulting firms.

USask partnered with the University of Manitoba, University of Waterloo, University of Calgary, McMaster University and industry collaborators to offer the program. Students in water security programs at any of the partner universities could participate and earn a certificate of completion.

USask—the No.1-ranked university in Canada for water resources research—was well suited to lead the unique-in-Canada program. Faculty members from the College of Arts and Science, Global Institute for Water Security, School of Environment and Sustainability, College of Engineering, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, and Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy all assisted with the NSERC CREATE.

Dr. Bram Noble (PhD) is a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at USask. (Photo: Submitted)

Westbrook and fellow geography and planning professor Dr. Bram Noble (PhD) co-taught the final course in the program in March 2021. The intense one-week online course featured guest speakers from industry and government. Students were challenged to work as an interdisciplinary team to respond to a mock request for proposals addressing an issue in urban water security.

“It’s just amazing to see how the students can respond, think on their feet, work together as a team,” said Noble, a co-applicant on the NSERC CREATE. “I think they come away from a course like this and learn that they actually have a lot more to offer than what they thought they did going into the course.”

Although the NSERC CREATE is ending, Noble and Westbrook want to carry some of its innovations forward into future graduate training at USask.

“I think across campus, and within the College of Arts and Science especially, there’s a real opportunity to develop courses of this nature that push students beyond the boundaries of science and scholarship, and expose them to different career opportunities and skills,” said Noble. 

For some NSERC CREATE graduates, the program confirmed their love for academia, while others “realized there are other pathways that they hadn’t explored,” said Westbrook.

Aubry-Wake hopes to find a faculty position after she completes her PhD.

“I really enjoy academia,” she said. “But it’s been really nice to know that I have other options and that I have a network that could help me achieve those career goals.”