Trio of prestigious awards for BU Master’s student studying ancient pollen and spores

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A Brandon University Master’s student who is studying fossilized pollen and spores (called palynology) has been recognized with three awards for her ongoing research and outstanding potential.

Nidhi Patel, who is earning a Master of Science in Environmental and Life Sciences (MELS) at BU after previously earning a Bachelor of Science here, said the recognition is motivating.

“Awards are like validation, an acknowledgement of a job well-done,” she said. “I feel extremely excited and motivated to continue the good work.”

Patel earned:

The tiny fossils she studies hold big lessons.

“A handful of sediment can hold tens of thousands of microscopic pollen and spores that fossilize under the right conditions and are safely held in sedimentary rocks for millions of years to come,” Patel explains.

The site she is studying, on Vancouver Island, is a rock outcrop that covers both before and after the famous Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event around 66 million years ago that wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs. Because plants are such an important part of the ecosystem, understanding them through the pollen and spores can help us understand mass extinctions.

“I wish to resolve questions pertaining to extinction, recovery post-extinction and evolution of plant communities after a drastic disturbance event,” Patel says.

Patel’s thesis advisor, Dr. David Greenwood, is himself a noted researcher of ancient plants. He says Patel is a wonderful student to have in his research group who does groundbreaking research.

“Nidhi’s success with these research awards is a testament to her hard work, tenacity, abundant energy, and attention to detail,” Dr. Greenwood said. “Her Master’s thesis will for the first time tell the story of how forests and swamps responded to the K-Pg mass extinction event on the west coast of North America. Prior to her study, understanding of the K-Pg extinction in North America was restricted to east of the Rocky Mountains.”

Patel credits Dr. Greenwood and co-advisor Dr. Jennifer Galloway (an adjunct professor in BU’s Dept of Geology, and research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada in Calgary) with encouraging her to join professional associations and helping her put her name forward for award recognition.

“The various societies and associations not only share world-class research that fellow scientists in the field are conducting but also endorse and support research projects of students like myself,” she said, adding that award applications require a brief clear description of the research. “Writing that and having it reviewed by your advisor certainly helps!”

Originally from India, Patel now calls Brandon her home and says it was early work with Dr. Greenwood during her bachelor’s degree that first sparked her interest in her current work.

“I was fortunate to work with David closely during my honours and it was during this time that I learnt about how much palynology interests me and decided to pursue a masters,” she said. “David is the best to work with, and our association has resulted in some great research outcomes and my very first 1st-author publication. I am thoroughly enjoying my research tenure at BU!”

Dr. Kofi Campbell, BU’s Provost and Vice-President (Academic), says that Patel’s experience is emblematic of the support that a small institution like BU can offer.

“We know that Brandon University students, at the undergraduate level especially, like where Nidhi started her work, have tremendous hands-on research opportunities that are rare — or simply not available — at larger universities,” Dr. Campbell said. “Small class sizes mean our students get to nurture quality relationships with their professors, opening the door to success like this.”

He says Patel’s awards success should inspire more BU students to put their names forward for national and international recognition.

“We have an incredible community of excellence and success here at BU, and we hold our own with anyone in the world,” Dr. Campbell said. “We only have to overcome our own modesty.”

Patel was also the recipient of a prestigious Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. While Patel’s fieldwork was curtailed this year due to a team member’s illness, she’s been kept busy in the lab.

After graduation, she plans to pursue a PhD and to build a career as a paleontologist, combining both research and academics.



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