• How the Northern Scientific Training Program helped make Canada an Arctic science heavyweight

    An NSTP grant helped Ann Balasubramaniam go to northern Yukon in 2008, when she was a doctoral student, to collaborate on freshwater ecosystem research with the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Balasubramaniam, shown taking water samples on Mary Netro Lake with Devon Kyikavichik, now works for Polar Knowledge Canada in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. (Photo: Ann Balasubramaniam)

Almost sixty years ago, a little-known federal program began providing Canadian university students with a rare opportunity to travel to the Arctic or Subarctic and gain practical research experience and understanding of a part of the country most never see. Besides changing the lives of thousands of students, it helped turn Canada into a powerhouse of northern research.

In the 1950s, the Canadian government faced an urgent need for northern scientists, as rapid change, driven by world events and domestic pressures for development, swept across the Arctic. With the Cold War in full swing, the new Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line stations were scanning the Arctic skies for Soviet bombers, and the Canadian military was learning how to live in and defend the North. New mines were springing up to exploit the northern mineral wealth that some thought almost limitless and, after decades of paying little attention to the Arctic and its residents, government administration was moving north. Northern science was considered crucial to these activities, but it was in short supply. Few Canadian researchers had northern experience, and most universities were neglecting the Arctic because of the astronomical cost of getting there. 

Canada faced an urgent need for northern scientists, as rapid change, driven by world events and domestic pressures, swept across the Arctic.

Among the small group of federal public servants working on the problem was Arctic expert Graham Rowley, whose first northern experiences in the 1930s as an explorer and archeologist had ignited a lifelong passion for the Arctic and close friendships with Inuit. Rowley knew that part of the solution lay in motivating students to build their careers around the North — and that an experience doing northern research could inspire that choice.

To encourage them along that path, Rowley and his colleagues developed the Northern Scientific Training Program (NSTP), which helps graduate students in the physical, social and life sciences with northern travel and living expenses. The NSTP began operating in 1962, administered by what was then called the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources. 

Among the students assisted by the NSTP in its first few years was Donat Savoie, who was studying anthropology at Université de Montréal. In 1967, Savoie travelled to Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik, where he lived with an Inuit family who welcomed him into their household and community. “I learned a great deal about Inuit life, their way of thinking, their values and the daily challenges they met in their quest to supply their families with food and necessities,” Savoie says. He went on to a distinguished career in northern affairs with the federal government and played an instrumental role in the development of Inuit self-government in Nunavik.

Pippa Secombe-Hett, a University of British Columbia botany student, went north for the first time in 1995, thanks to an NSTP grant. “That was the catalyst for me,” she says. “I’ve done research in all three territories — and that first northern experience shaped my career choice entirely.” Secombe-Hett is now Vice President of Research at Aurora College, in Inuvik, Northwest Territories.

Since its beginning, the NSTP (administered since 2015 by Polar Knowledge Canada) has assisted more than 12,000 students. Nearly all of Canada’s northern scientists, and many others working in northern fields for governments and Indigenous or other organizations, got their first northern experience through an NSTP grant. 

The NSTP has assisted more than 12,000 students — nearly all of Canada’s northern scientists got their first northern experience through an NSTP grant. 

Today, with climate change and other pressing issues affecting the North, the need for new knowledge is as urgent as it was six decades ago. Each year, with NSTP’s help, students from across the country, including the North, studying at 35 Canadian universities, fan out across northern Canada to help build that knowledge. It’s a safe bet that tomorrow’s northern science superstars are among them.

This is the latest in a blog series on polar issues and research presented by Canadian Geographic and Polar Knowledge Canada, a Government of Canada agency with a mandate to advance Canada’s knowledge of the Arctic and strengthen Canadian leadership in polar science and technology. Learn more at canada.ca/en/polar-knowledge.