In summer of 2013, SFU Biomedical Physiology student Severin Vaillancourt headed to The Bahamas as a Field Research Assistant with the SFU’s Marine Ecology Lab. He shared his recollections of underwater adventures and more with International Co-op.
If you could describe your international experience in one word, what would it be?
What made you decide to do International Co-op?
I always wanted to study or work abroad as an undergraduate student. Co-op happened to be a perfect fit because it allowed me to do both!
It didn’t necessarily have to be an international Co-op so long as I could experience a totally new environment and routine away from school. It offered more space and a fresh perspective.
How did you find your international position?
In Fall 2012, I met my soon-to-be supervisors in a scientific diving course at SFU without even knowing it! After requesting a reference letter from my professor for an internship, I was given way more than I could have asked for. Not only did I receive an incredible letter of recommendation, but my supervisor also wrote that she was putting me forward for a research internship to assist with one of her PhD students (quite a surprise!).
I met up with Dr. Côté and the conditions had been laid out: if I applied for an Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) and was selected, I could work in the Marine Ecology Lab. After receiving the award I learned that I would be sent to a field station in Eleuthera (The Bahamas) for three months. It was just one thing after the next.
What do you think helped you get the job?
Showing my interest, persistence and a desire to learn–I emailed several biology professors asking if there were any dive-related volunteer opportunitiesI could get involved with. About a month later I got my first positive response from a professor who was away on sabbatical.
There were rockfish surveys I could get involved with and this professor also happened to be teaching a graduate level course titled Underwater Research Methods (Scientific Diving). With his permission I was able to enroll in the course. That’s not how it all started but this marks where my search really began to gain momentum.
How did you prepare yourself to live and work abroad?
Mentally it was hard to prepare for the unknown so I tried to keep an open mind and draw on the learning experiences from my first co-op placement. I also checked off my pre-trip requirements one box at a time. Several MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) shopping trips later and I was ready to go!
How did SFU Co-op prepare you for your work term abroad?
I received endless support from my co-op advisors, my second family. In addition to their help, co-op’s Symplicity website offered extensive step-by-step guides and checklists to keep me on track, and the Bridging International Learning (BIL) course provided me with a timeline and prompts to complement those resources.
It also allowed me to engage with other students who would be facing similar challenges before, during, and after their own international placements.
What did you do as a field research assistant?
As a scuba diving research assistant it was my job to do everything within my capacity to ensure my direct supervisor Luis would get the data he needed for an airtight Ph.D. thesis. Over the course of three months I dove nearly every day, surveying coral reef patches and collecting fish with a variety of “fish herding” methods that my teammates and I helped to design. I learned to perform non-invasive surgeries on fish and helped to document over one thousand samples.
On Saturdays, with the team’s help, I even carried out my own research project examining habitat preference and site fidelity of yellow stingray. It was also essential that everyone on the team knew how to captain a boat, so I was taught and could eventually be relied on to navigate, moor, and delicately approach divers on the surface in some rough conditions.
Did previous work terms make it easier to settle in?
Absolutely. Whenever things got tough I would reflect on my accomplishments during my first placement. In moments of doubt it helped to reassure me of my capabilities. While working in the social services/personal care sector I was able to develop interpersonal and time management skills, as well as problem solving strategies. Despite the differences in job descriptions, the skills I developed during my first placement were very transferable.
Did you face any challenges throughout the work term?
Yes, I faced personal, social, and physical challenges. Initially I struggled with writing and presenting information to others. Usually it comes naturally but for a while that ability was hindered in part by anxiety stemming from high self-expectations. This was resolved in several ways: I got more information from my supervisors about what their expectations were for me. I confided my feelings to my teammate and to experienced interns whom I felt I could trust. And, I had some great Skype conversations with friends. Because the nature of the job was physically demanding it was also important to take care of our bodies in every way we could. This included redundant use of band-aids and antibiotic cream to avoid persistent infections. When you work in the water it takes cuts forever to heal!
Did you receive any financial aid from SFU or elsewhere?
I had the good fortune of receiving an Undergraduate Student Research Award from the National Engineering and Sciences Research Council (NSERC) and an International Co-operative Education Award from SFU. Both were tremendously helpful. A year ago and I don’t think I could have anticipated this.
I also couldn't have done it without the support of Dr. Côté and the Marine Ecology Lab.
Students might think International Co-op is all work. Did you get time to do other activities?
Of course! Although time off was limited we would find ways to turn errands into fun opportunities. We made two “down island” trips, each time because colleagues had to be picked up from the northernmost airport. The second time my teammates and I stayed at a surf hostel for a night. We barbecued, surfed, explored Hatchet Bay Caves, snorkeled a shipwreck and enjoyed ice cream while taking in an amazing sunset. There were plenty of things to do on my day off too. I could go free diving, cycling, exploring mangroves or hangout at the beach with friends to name a few ‘tingums. There would sometimes be potluck dinner parties after work, with the most popular being Lionfish dinners. On top of that I was able to participate in a few local celebrations including Bahamian Independence day and Conch Festival.
Did you have a favourite food in your new country?
Souse, a traditional soup made for any meal, which is most commonly for breakfast. From what I recall, it could be made with chicken bits, mutton or fish heads, along with potatoes, onions and chicken and lime stock. Mmm, mmm–Souse!
What was your accommodation like?
I lived in a two bedroom, single floor ‘triplex’ with my supervisor and teammate. It was situated about ten kilometers away from the Cape Eleuthera field station (CEI) in a settlement called Deep Creek. Our neighbors were very friendly!
What was one of your most memorable moments?
Synchronized swimming with everyone after finishing all of our surveys and sampling. To our amusement we were all still in our wetsuits and booties. It was pretty goofy.
Were you able to make valuable connections while on your work term?
Yes. At CEI I met groups of passionate educators, artists and scientists from around the world. We even collaborated with a few researchers from other universities!
Has this experience abroad changed your career or educational goals? How has this work term fit into your SFU Co-op experience as a whole?
Definitely. The experience sensitized me to the importance of ecology, conservation and sustainability. It changed my understanding of research in its own right and now a career in research has never been more appealing to me.
What is next for you?
I’ll be in school for at least another year so I hope to infuse it with some lab work and diving. I am also planning to enroll in a BISC 498 Research Project in order to thoroughly process the stingray data that I collected. Aside from that I have two more co-op terms to complete, leaving me to wonder what kind of opportunities might lie ahead.
What would be the one piece of advice you would give to students who are thinking about doing an International Co-op work term?
Be open to the unknown, express your interest and share your excitement! If you get placed it might help to remember that you’re there to learn rather than to already be at a professional level. It may cause undue stress if you expect yourself to be a pro!