Convocation ‘23: Ferf Brownoff, BSc Environmental and Conservation Sciences

Donna McKinnon - 07 June 2023


Ferf Brownoff developed a passion for cicadas while working in Japan. He had always been interested in ecology and the environment, but something about the cicadas’ unique design and sound piqued a curiosity about the natural world that he wanted to explore in depth at the University of Alberta.  

The Environmental and Conservation Sciences bachelor of science program offered by the Department of Renewable Resources ticked many of these boxes, and though initially worried that he wasn’t ‘science-y’ enough to find success in his studies, his peer group and professors supported him throughout his journey.   

Challenging the notion that ‘knowledge is power’, Ferf sees knowledge acquisition not as an hierarchical end, but as a means to unlock potential, not only in himself but also in his community. Toward this end, Ferf took on a number of volunteer roles, serving as VP of Environmental and Conservation Sciences Students' Association (ECSA), as a TA in several labs and as the undergraduate representative for the department’s EDI committee.

This September, Ferf will begin a master’s program with Justine Karst, a favourite professor who will now serve as his supervisor. Preliminary research is already underway this summer. 

Congratulations Ferf!


What led you to choose your current area of study, and why the U of A for your studies?

In 2015, I started working in a small town in northern Japan and although the job had nothing to do with ecology, my time there made me realize how passionate I am about plants and invertebrates. I eventually realized that if I didn’t go back to school to study ecology, I would be kicking myself for it 10 years later. 

When I moved back to Edmonton, I felt like I wanted to explore so many of the things that I had overlooked about the natural environment in my own backyard. I had also spoken to a number of folks that recommended the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences for the types of things I was interested in. The BSc in Environmental and Conservation Sciences in Renewable Resources seemed like a great fit. 

What is one of your favourite memories from your time at the U of A?

This isn’t a specific memory, and it’s definitely pretty nerdy, but I’d say attending Carol Frost’s lab meetings over the past three years has led to almost all of the most memorable experiences in my degree. I feel like they’ve been a super safe place to be curious and increase my ecological knowledge generally, but I’ve also just had a great time at all of the meetings. Yes, I think learning is fun, so I understand that makes me a nerd. But, I’ve also laughed so hard that my face hurt at many of those meetings. Plus, so many meaningful things I’ve gotten to participate in throughout my degree stemmed from involvement in her lab in some fashion. From identifying cool spiders, starting undergraduate research, and presenting at conferences, getting involved with the Frost lab has been the basis for being involved in all of those experiences.

Tell us about your favourite professor and/or class.

Oh dang, this is really tough. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from a lot of very incredible instructors. Carol Frost has been one of the most supportive instructors and supervisors I could have ever asked to connect with, on top of being so intelligent and compassionate. Similarly,  Justine Karst always struck me as intelligent, caring, patient and hardworking. She also encouraged critical thinking in her courses and in guest lectures/talks that I’ve attended, so I’ve really looked up to her for all of those reasons. Honestly, though, I think any instructor or course that encouraged me to engage critically with material, challenge my own assumptions, or had given me some opportunity to grow a skill were my favourites.

I made an animation about the evolution of periodicity in periodical cicadas for John Acorn’s Environmental Interpretation and Science Communication Course in my last term. In large part, because the project was so open-ended (but also because I thoroughly enjoyed getting to spend so much time researching cicadas), I’d say that was my favourite class.

Did you take on any leadership roles while you were a student? 

I was fortunate enough to TA a couple of labs through my degree and, though it was anxiety-inducing, they were the most rewarding experiences I had at the U of A. I appreciate that not every student has the time or interest to TA a course but, if you can swing it, it’s a really great opportunity to connect with folks in your program regardless of what cohort you’re in. I also felt like I had a lot of really great TAs over the years in Renewable Resources, so I wanted to pay forward the dedication that they put into labs for my students. I know that I made plenty of mistakes as a TA, so I’m not suggesting that I was a perfect communicator of information. But, frankly, everyone I’ve ever met makes mistakes - often. So, it was a good way for me to try to get over perfectionism and just roll with doing my best. And I figure if I helped even one student to learn something new or better their skills, then it was worth it. 

Did you face any significant obstacles or challenges during your program? 

I’m fairly certain this is a somewhat universal experience, but imposter syndrome has plagued me since my first year of this degree. I always felt like I didn’t have a “science-y mind” and that it was only a matter of time before people found out that I was just faking it. I’ve also been trying to overcome perfectionism in my school work and life generally. I wouldn’t say that I’ve responded all that well in the past, but recently, compassionate advice from a number of my instructors has started to sink in. I’m realizing that no one is perfect, even the best researchers go through peer review for improving their work, and that concentrating on a perfect end product isn’t really as adaptive as I think it might be. I get so much more out of learning and working on the processes than I ever could from attaining some status or end goal. Ultimately, any happiness or satisfaction I’ve gained from achieving those ends is short-lived and there’s always something else that I’ll want to set my sights on. Instead, I’m trying to be humble yet proud of the work I’m doing and be more engaged with the satisfaction I derive from the present moment.

What advice do you have for current and future students?

Always take time for learning. I recognize that I’ve had a lot of privilege and support to help me get to where I am now, but I don’t just mean learning in academia. It could be honing a skill, learning a new one, or even taking the time to consider a different perspective that doesn’t align with your own. Learning things just feels incredibly rewarding to me. I don’t like the old School House Rock motto “Knowledge is Power,” because it feels like you’re holding knowledge over those who lack it. Instead, I like to think of knowledge as empowering, because it’s like you’re unlocking some potential within yourself and I feel it lets you engage with your life in a way more fulfilling way. So, yeah, never be afraid to fail or succeed when it comes to learning.

How do you plan on celebrating convocation?

I don’t know if I will celebrate, really. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I’m not very good at celebrating myself. I guess probably by going to the Next Act and camping with my partner? 

What's next after graduation?

I’m starting my master’s with Justine Karst in the fall and starting some preliminary research with her this summer. I’m excited to start post-undergrad research and am incredibly thrilled/grateful to be supervised by her.