Summer jobs don’t always relate to career plans (“Want fries with that PhD?”). But thanks to McGill’s undergraduate research programs, Amara Regehr spent two summers doing valuable research -- experience that led to her co-authoring a paper in an influential academic journal, then landing a great job upon graduating this past spring.
Amara, now an environmental engineer in Boston, first took part in the Faculty of Engineering’s Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (SURE) program in the summer of 2018. She worked on a project that measured emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells in British Columbia, under Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Mary Kang, who runs the Subsurface Hydrology and Geochemistry Research Group.
Regehr worked closely with Prof. Kang on project planning, booked the travel arrangements and hotels, and taught herself a complicated modelling software program before heading to the field to collect data. It was truly a job, not classroom learning.
Once in BC, she and another student drove around to examine sites. Because the wells were no longer in use, they should have been capped and buried quickly. But many were just abandoned and had been leaking gases like methane for years. ”Although regulatory bodies try to oversee this, they usually don’t have enough workers to enforce the protocol,” Amara says.
Regehr stayed involved with Kang’s lab during the school year, and was hired again through SURE the next summer. This time, she drove from Montreal to Oklahoma with two students, laden with technical equipment, to do the same research. “It was an adventure!”
Greenhouse gases are usually measured in the atmosphere, with no precise understanding where they come from. No one had conducted precise measurements of methane leaks from abandoned wells, and Prof. Kang was the first to do so by using a flux chamber. This contraption uses poles, airtight tarp, fans for circulation, and a way to measure the gas concentrations. “We can tell exactly what’s coming out of the well,” Regehr says.
The McGill team found that annual emissions from the millions of these wells in North America are underestimated by 20% in the U.S. and a whopping 150% in Canada. The findings were published in Environmental Science and Technology last December.
With sensors becoming more widely available and less expensive, Regehr hopes the abandoned wells will be easier to monitor and then properly capped.
Regehr’s final summer as a student looked quite different. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, Regehr rushed back home to the Boston area to finish the semester at her parents’ house, then landed an internship at engineering and construction firm CDM Smith.
A dual citizen, Regehr returned to Montreal in the fall to form a small bubble of classmates while doing courses online. “It was a good cherry on top, living with friends and finishing up, all things considered.” She regrets not having a proper graduation in person. “Very quickly, people just disperse. We’ll have to do a reunion graduation or something.” (McGill plans to hold in-person celebrations for recent alumni who graduated virtually during the pandemic.)
Working on water resources
Regehr was then hired by CDM Smith, and is now in water resources and water services. She works on environmental projects, from planning to design and implementation.
Regehr credits her work at Kang’s hydrology and geochemistry lab for helping her get the job. “The name of her lab definitely helped me get my foot in the door,” Regehr notes. “And in a way, gas coming through the earth and going up is similar to water going down – it’s just a different phase.”
Regehr says CDM Smith was surprised to see an undergraduate with so much experience using modelling software, which she also used in her water resources class with Associate Professor Susan Gaskin. (Sidenote: a colleague at CDM turned out to also be a McGill grad and fan of Prof. Gaskin.)
“That experience with Professor Kang helped a lot in understanding environmental impact and got me excited about environmental policy,” Regehr says. “Now I’m learning how policy plays out in real time.”
Expanding opportunities for undergrads
In recent years, undergraduates at McGill have had access to a growing number of opportunities to dive into serious research work. Those opportunities will continue to expand, says Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Fabrice Labeau.
“We pride ourselves on being a research-intensive and student-centred university, in which teaching and learning is informed by the latest research,” says Labeau.
Undergraduates with an interest in experiencing research for themselves should have the opportunity to flourish in such an environment, reasons Labeau. McGill has an array of programs designed to promote undergraduate research and these programs “allow students to apply their knowledge to real, current and cutting-edge research questions and problems.”