Science students head into the woods

Queen’s University Biological Station boasts an unparalleled research experience and getaway—so why haven’t we heard of it?

The QUBS complex spans nearly 7
Image supplied by: Photos courtesy of
The QUBS complex spans nearly 7

Once upon the 1940s, some 50 kilometers north of Kingston on the shores of Lake Opinicon, the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) was built. Over the years, students, teachers and researchers alike have gathered there, making discoveries and collecting data for credit and career. Today, Queen’s students are lucky if they are even aware of this place, and only a chosen few are allowed to enter the world of QUBS.

Universities across Ontario have the privilege of visiting the station to conduct research and teach eager biology and geography students. Queen’s upper-year biology and geography students get to live the good life on the lake studying the various species of wildlife and improving their research skills.

The station is complete with fully equipped live-in cabins, built for weekend to two-week visits, and an atmosphere reminiscent of summer camp, complete with the occasional beer-run–or rather, “beer canoe”—across the lake.

But this camp provides more than just front row seats to meteor showers. It can ultimately lead students through the experiences they need to get the researching career of their dreams. It might just be better than summer camp.

Frank Phelan has been the manager of QUBS for the past 33 years. He told the Journal in an e-mail that the station’s mandate has evolved over time.

“It was purchased by a very visionary group at Queen’s concerned with teaching the fundamentals of biology and retraining veterans returning from World War II in plant and wildlife biology and management,” he said. “Over the first few years, the infrastructure of the station was built to serve this purpose.  The mandate has grown to include both teaching and research in the biological sciences.”

Phelan’s background in biology allows him to provide a first-rate experience for budding and veteran researchers alike.

“A biologist myself, with a master’s degree in biology, I feel I am operating a hotel in the woods for biologists,” he said.  “I oversee the facilities and the activities at the field station and all of its property.  We provide housing and meals so that time in the field can be maximized (too often field seasons are intense yet very limited in time—breeding seasons are short, for example).”

Anthony Bassutti, ArtSci ’09 and QUBS veteran, has participated in three trips to the station in both the fall and spring seasons.

Bassutti said he preferred the fall biology trips (with BIOL 302 and BIOL 335) to the six-day spring geography trip (for GPHY 306), because the weather then was too cold and wet for his liking. But rain or shine, QUBS offered him and his classmates a crash course in practical research.

Students like Bassutti have had the chance to practice skills such as soil sampling techniques, including coring—a process also used in field archaeology—weather station operation, underground water flow tracking and organism sampling.

Phelan said QUBS is unique in its size and purpose.

“It’s the largest inland field station in Canada,” he said. “There are other field stations across Canada and the United States which vary in their size, role and representation of local habitats and environments. QUBS is unique in direct ownership of its properties, which enables long-term projects in undeveloped and relatively undisturbed habitats.”

Phelan said current research has emphasized the preservation of the environment and the species living within it.

“Projects of late have featured conservation biology—reptiles, amphibians, birds, bats and fish,” he said. “This reflects both the undercurrent of concern among the public and the need for information to effectively manage species, to understand threats to their populations and to preserve these selfsame species and the overall diversity within localites and larger landscapes.”

But more than research, QUBS also provides community. Jacqueline Loiselle, ConEd ’10 said she especially enjoyed the bonding experience provided by the trip.  “Getting up early, going to bed late and being fuelled by a lack of sleep with complete strangers who know you better than some of your best friends,” she said. “It’s truly amazing how much you learn about people and how funny things are when fatigue and hygiene no longer matter.” For Yoyo Cheung, ArtSci ’10, this is exactly the memory she likes most about her weekend QUBS adventure for BIOL 302.

“The most memorable moment was when we went out to the lake with the coveralls to collect fish data,” she said. “It took teamwork to haul the net around to sample the fish species. I think that was one of the most interesting experiences that I had there; [it] made me feel as if I was actually doing research.”

Jasmine Lam, ArtSci ’10, said she wishes she could spend more time casting nets and counting fish instead of recording numbers and reading papers.

“It’s too bad we don’t really go that often,” she said. “I hope they maintain the facility and maybe make it bigger so we can do more there.”

Phelan said his time at QUBS began by chance, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“At the time I graduated from Queen’s, there was a desperate need for someone to act as manager,” he said. “My wife and I agreed to see the station through one busy summer many years ago—I guess that that summer is still not over!  I love the challenges and the ability to contribute to the training and experience of all of our users, especially the students.”

He added that one of his favourite parts of the job is creating memories for students.

“When biology alumni are asked about the significant experiences during their time at Queen’s, time spent at the field station is often mentioned as the best-remembered and sometimes life-altering experience at university,” he said. “Whether on a weekend excursion for ecology or limnology courses, a two-week long field course or a summer spent as a research assistant, the exposure to hands-on field work, the interaction with others in the same boat against the background of the natural environment and the opportunity to eat, work and sleep biology in a stimulating environment is often the key to sparking a life-long interest in and perhaps a career.  “For us at QUBS, this is what keeps us going.”

—With files from Monica Heisey

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