Ask an Alumni Anything: Nick Yarmey, '14 BSc

Research associate and alumnus Nick Yarmey answers questions on being a full-time researcher, completing a master's abroad, his time on campus and much more!

24 March 2021

Nick Yarmey grew up in rural Alberta before coming to Augustana to earn his BSc in environmental science. Nick's interests evolved after discovering a love of sociology in his third year, which he took up as his minor. As a student, he was co-chair of Augustana Queers and Allies and organized the campus’ first Pride Week celebration. For two summers, he was a research assistant for Professor Hood studying beavers and wetlands.

After graduating, Nick worked on-campus at the Learning, Advising, and Beyond office (now Student Academic Services), traveled for four months, worked at an LGBTQ non-profit and then at a consulting company doing community-based research for Indigenous communities. Next, he completed his master of science at the University of Connecticut studying what people think about the neighbourhood black bears who regularly eat from their garbage bins. Currently, he has two roles: one as a research associate at the University of Lethbridge using GIS and mapping to understand how natural resource extraction impacts community health, and another as an independent data science consultant.

Q: How concerned should I be about raccoons?

A: It depends what your concerns are, but I wouldn't worry too much. They can be a nuisance in some contexts but are also adorable and an important part of the ecosystem (like all animals). Raccoons can also carry zoonotic diseases (i.e., diseases humans can catch from other animals), so absolutely don't touch, approach or feed them if you see one in the wild (this goes for all wildlife).


Q: What were the benefits and drawbacks of doing a master’s outside Canada?

A: I loved being able to move, meet new people and see part of the world I hadn't yet. Plus my master's program was fully funded, which means I didn't have to pay tuition and I earned a small wage that covered my living expenses. However, a big part of my grad school experience was making connections with professionals in my field (which can help your career and lead to new opportunities), so it would have been nice to be building that professional network in the place I wanted to live.


Q: Can you tell us about the time beavers parachuted out of airplanes?

A: This is hilariousin the '40s, the Idaho Fish and Wildlife department decided that there were too many beavers in one part of the state and not enough in another part of the state. However, the place they wanted to move them to was so remote that it was easier to just parachute the beavers out of a plane in their little cages to land safely on the ground. Depending who you ask, they say all 76 beavers survived the landing (but it's likely at least some died afterwards). This practice of relocating wildlife to a new territory is incredibly stressful for themthey have to find food, build a home and avoid being eaten in completely unfamiliar lands, so unfortunately the survival rate is quite low :(


Q: What does a typical day look like as a full-time researcher?

A: My days are pretty flexible because I generally work with long deadlines, meaning it is up to me what I focus on each day. Typical tasks include cleaning and analyzing data in R programming language, making pretty maps, thinking very hard while pacing around my apartment, reading and writing journal articles and meeting with teammates. I'm extremely lucky to have bosses (Drs. Lars Hallstrom and Chris Buse) who trust me and give me autonomy to do the work in my own way, which is an environment I really thrive in. However, it does require a lot of self-motivation which can be a challenge (especially 1 year into a pandemic).


Q: How did you prepare for the GRE? 

A: The GRE is a standardized test used for admissions for most American and some Canadian master's programs. For my particular program, the GRE score was basically just a formality, so I had to take even though I was already accepted. I only had about 1 week to prepare for the test because of the way the deadlines happened, so I just read some resources online to familiarize myself with the format. I think the most important thing is to understand the types of questions they ask and the kinds of answers they expect rather than focusing on content. The questions were quite different from the tests I was used to taking, and it's done in a very high-pressure environment with pressing time limits, so prepare yourself for that, too!


Q: How was it planning Augustana’s first Pride?

A: It was the best, most chaotic time! We started planning really last-minute because there was no one officially in charge of it (there was no Augustana Queers and Allies at this time). One day, Dr. Tara Milbrandt suggested we plan something for Pride because North Campus was planning something, so I got together with a handful of friends, we brainstormed and made a game plan (the birth of the overhead rainbow photo in the forum) and then made it happen. The advantage of Augustana is that on such a small campus, you can move things really quickly (like getting events approved, advertising, etc.). Then the group of us who organized this event went on to re-start Augustana Queers and Allies the following year.


Q: How did you choose a master's program? How did you know it was the right one for you?

A: I joined a number of environmental email listservs where academics often advertise for grad students and kept my eye on opportunities while working in consulting. The third program I applied to, I got an interview and subsequently was offered the position. The research topic (human dimensions of wildlife) was a great fit for what I wanted to study, the professor seemed great and it was fully funded, so I decided “why not?”

I can’t say whether it was the “right” choice or not—you never really know! But if I went back in time I would do it again because I’m not willing to give up the friendships I made and the experiences I had during grad school :)


Q: What was your favourite AQUA event when you were at Augustana?

A: There were so many good ones! The off-campus drag shows we hosted were an absolute blast (and a hit with Camrose community members, too).


Q: Which professor would you give a shout-out to?

A: I’ve gotta say Glynnis Hood for giving me my first (and second) research job, which set me on this path of researching human-wildlife coexistence. That was easily one of the most pivotal experiences of my career. 

Fun fact: her and I JUST published a paper together that came directly out of that research assistant job I had with her ~7 years ago. 


Q: I am a first-year student in a biology major. I am wondering how and when I should prepare to get a research opportunity for next year?

A: The best way to find research opportunities on-campus is to just talk to professors who do research in the fields you’re interested in. Ideally these would be professors you’ve taken a class with or have some relationship with, but they don’t have to be. Let them know why you’re interested in their work and that you’re looking to get research experience, as well as what topic areas/research questions/methods/organisms/habitats you’re interested in. If a prof isn’t hiring a research assistant, they may be willing to supervise a directed study or could know of opportunities for you to volunteer and gain experience. 

If you want to do a summer research assistant job, start looking now. If you want to do research part-time this fall, start asking around and checking the Augustana job board in the summer. Research opportunities with profs can come at any time of the semester, too, so it never hurts to keep in touch with those profs and express your interest to them. 


Q: How have all of your research projects intersected? How do you decide what to research next?

A: Broadly, the thread that ties all of my research together is the question “How can we create a world where everybody can thrive?” To me, this falls at the intersection of healthy people and healthy environments. I never have really decided specifically what to research next—I just followed my curiosity and took opportunities that interested me as they came.


Q: Has it been difficult finding environment-related jobs that aren’t tied to oil and gas?

A: It can be, but I've never been in a position where I HAD to work in oil and gas. Be aware that most of the large consulting firms (who have a lot of staff and entry-level positions) will likely do work for clients in the oil and gas industry in some capacity. You will need to decide to what extent this work aligns with your values. For example, are you willing to work on environmental impact assessments for oil and gas projects (something that would be common at a large consulting firm)? On the one hand, you will most likely be contributing to those projects getting approved, but on the other hand you may have opportunities to influence the conditions of approval (i.e., what environmental protections are required, what needs to be monitored and what mitigation measures need to be in place). 


Q: How/when do you start looking for your next research work? And how do you find it?

A: I've found most of my research work through networking and people I've met through work. For example, Augustana professors I am still in touch with, previous employers and people I've met through research collaborations. It is a slow process, but building up your professional network by presenting at conferences, going to lectures and webinars, volunteering and simply reaching out to people whose work you admire can go a long way. Of course, none of these things are guaranteed to result in job opportunities, but the more you put yourself out there and do good work, the more likely you are to meet the right people.

To give an example, I went to a lecture and talked to the presenter afterwards to ask some questions. After getting to talking, I found out they were looking to hire someone with skills in GIS and spatial analysis (which I do). So, I followed up with them about it and it turned out I was a good fit for the project and they hired me. That's something that I never could have predicted or planned for—it was a matter of luck (which Seneca called "what happens when preparation meets opportunity").


Q: What excites you the most about beavers and their value to the environment?

A: I could gush over beavers for pages, but I’ll try to keep it brief! Beavers are one of the few species we call “ecosystem engineers” because of their ability to radically alter their environment (second only to humans). Most beavers build dams to block the flow of running water, which causes a new pond to form behind the dam. The amazing thing about the ponds beavers create is that they benefit so many other species in the process, including us! Beaver ponds reduce the severity of droughts in agricultural areas like Alberta, reduce the risk of extreme flooding, store huge amounts of carbon, filter contaminants from water and provide habitat for other wildlife. 

Something most people don’t know about beavers is that besides building dams, they are also incredible diggers! They dig underwater trenches within their ponds and leading away from the pond. These trenches stretch outward from the pond and are filled with water, so the beavers use them like watery roads to swim along when they go to the forest looking for food. Plus, when they are dragging trees back to the pond, they just need to drag them to one of their canals and then can float it the rest of the way home. I promise the more you learn about beavers the more you will be amazed!