Graduate student wins international honour for solving an oilsands land-reclamation issue

Prestigious WAGS Proquest STEM Award handed out in Las Vegas, today

Denise Giles - 20 March 2018

A PhD candidate in the University of Alberta's Department of Renewable Resources has found a solution to a problem that occurs around the world during land reclamation, and today he receives an international award for his work.

Through his studies of Canada's boreal region-the wide vegetation zone which lies between the tundra of the Arctic and the temperate zone of southern Canada, and stretches from the Yukon to Labrador-Prem Pokharel examined the problem of land reclamation within that zone.

When organizations that disturb land in the boreal forest attempt to restore the land back to its original state, they face obstacles. Vegetation establishment in land reclamation, reforestation and revegetation is often challenged by low nutrients and water availability in reclaimed soils, especially from reclaimed oilsands projects.

Pokharel used a nutrient-loading technique, a process in which seedlings are loaded with excess nutrients during nursery fertilization, to produce a higher-yield success rate in the nutrient-deficient reclaimed soils with Jack Pine and Trembling Aspen in the boreal region. A controlled study took place 25 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, from 2013 to 2016.

"Prem's initial research was highly successful and can have a great impact," said Scott Chang, his PhD supervisor.

"The next stage is to do a larger-scale study for five to 10 years, possibly looking into nutrient-loading techniques for different species, so that this can be a solution for ecosystems beyond the boreal region. Then we need to promote this technique to companies for land reclamation and revegetation."

Pokharel's master's thesis on his study won the best thesis award from the Western Association of Graduate Schools. The organization is comprised of accredited institutions in the western U.S., Canada and the Pacific Rim that offer master's and doctoral degrees.

During his master's thesis, Pokharel travelled and presented to several regional, national and international conferences where he received best-presentation awards. Additionally, he published his thesis and three articles in peer-reviewed journals. In recognition of his efforts, he was selected from more than 200 institutions as the recipient of the 2017 Western Association of Graduate Schools (WAGS) Proquest STEM Award, which he will receive today in Las Vegas.

"When I came to Canada from Nepal, I heard a lot about oilsands and mining activities in Northern Alberta," said Pokharel. "When I read some of the literature and reports, I saw many individuals having issues with successful land reclamation. I started to think, I have a background in plant science; this might be an area where I could do something to help this country that has helped me.

"As a recipient of this award, I now have more confidence in doing my research and am encouraged to work harder through my PhD," he said. "My supervisor has been an inspiration and continues to motivate me to stay curious and think on a big picture level."

Pokharel's thesis, Nursery Fertilization and Understory Competition Affect Seedling Growth in Oil Sands Reclaimed Soils in Alberta, is accessible through UAlberta's Education and Research Archive.

His work was supported by a scholarship from the Land Reclamation International Graduate School (LRIGS), a Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).