Environmental Scientist

by Stewart Prest, submitted 2008

“It’s not dirt. It’s soil. Dirt is what you find in a vacuum cleaner.”

It’s a distinction that Kathy Fiebich learned from a professor at Augustana while completing a Bachelor’s degree in Science.

If anyone understands the importance of soil, it’s her. She’s a consulting environmental scientist with a firm in Edmonton, Alberta. Her job involves testing soil and water affected by industrial processes and recommending ways to return it to an equivalent capability.

With the huge growth of the oil industry in Alberta during the last decade, there’s a lot of work for her. “This afternoon I’m heading off to Hinton, and then I’ve got a number of sites to visit near Swan Hills.

“The Hinton project is really interesting. We’re using a process called ‘phytoremediation’. Simply put, we’re using a variety of plant species to reduce the impacts in the soil.

“Traditionally, impacted soil would have to be completely removed and replaced, which is both costly and less sustainable from an environmental standpoint. I think we’ll be seeing more of this technology in the future.”

It’s a big effort, involving industrial partners, as well as researchers from another university in Canada. “My job is to take care of everything at the site itself – from planting and fertilizing, to testing and analyzing the results.”

She learned the details of her trade on the job, working for a couple of years with an environmental consulting firm in Fort St. John. “They were glad to have someone with a degree – they provided me with the field knowledge and technical skills that I needed.”

Prior to that, she worked on a University of Alberta research project in the Yukon. “Following the merger between Augustana and the U of A, I was able to access a federal scholarship for undergraduates, and that money allowed me to get into the field and apply everything I’d learned in the classroom.”

Still, Kathy stresses that the foundations for her career were laid during her undergraduate studies. “There’s more than science to the work I do. I have to be able to think critically and communicate results effectively to our clients, and I developed those skills at Augustana.”

Perhaps the most important thing she got from Augustana was the passion for her work. “The professors at Augustana were fantastic. Their passion for the environment sparked my own. It developed my interest in soil, plants, insects and animals. I’ve always cared about the environment, but my time at Augustana showed me how I could find meaningful work and build a career doing the kind of things that I love.”