“Field work is extremely expensive, which closes the doors for so many people due to systemic factors or financial issues,” says Mariel Terebiznik, FREED co-founder and recent U of T graduate with a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. She started the program alongside Western University master’s student Aranya Iyer.
“I want to make room for people who don't have access to these spaces,” she says.
Celebrating a successful pilot program this past summer, FREED, in association with the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB), funds a week of education, travel and accommodation at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station. Students are immersed in paid and intensive field work environments where they gain crucial experience for future research positions.
Assistant Professor Njal Rollinson from EEB acted as faculty sponsor because he knew how crucial this was for students’ success.
“It’s important to get this type of research experience under their belt so they can put it on their resume,” says Rollinson. “And it helps them clarify whether they want to go into field research in the first place.
“These are the fundamentally important things that most people like me had the privilege of experiencing early on in my career whereas others haven’t.”
It was the best summer experience of my undergraduate career. Even though it was a lot of hard work, it didn’t feel like work.
This year, the program included students from U of T and Western, with donations from the U of T community, including alumni, going directly towards U of T students.
"We don't always have the support system to go into research or academia and it really meant a lot to have this kind of community,” says Jasmin Jeong, who attended FREED as a life sciences student in her second year with Woodsworth College.
“It's comforting to know there are other people out there who want to do things that I want to do.”
From canoeing and catching turtles to humanely trapping flying squirrels, as well as tree and insect identification, the students learned valuable skills about scientific research, but they also cultivated a network with peers and mentors.
"We talked about our experiences as racialized students and how it might have been harder for some of us but talking about the intersectionality of our identities was really comforting,” says FREED participant Angela Wang, a fourth-year life sciences student with Trinity College.
“It was the best summer experience of my undergraduate career. Even though it was a lot of hard work, it didn’t feel like work.”
Thanks to sponsorship from academic partners including U of T and Ontario Parks, the students had access to camping and research equipment, outdoor living and safety training, a hike along Algonquin's scenic Beaver Pond Trail off the Highway 60 corridor and a guided wolf howl by the midnight moonlight.
"It can be a little scary but don’t be afraid to try new things and talk to different people,” says Jeong, who advises future FREED participants to go outside their comfort zone if they want to get the most out of the experience.
Starting this program was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. We were blown away by the support and we were never turned down by the people we looked to for help.
It costs about $1,300 to send each person to the week-long program, offering these students an invaluable experience that might otherwise be inaccessible due to the marginalization of certain groups in STEM.
“It's such a great opportunity to discover something you might be passionate about,” says Wang, who will always cherish the friendships she forged during her week in the wilderness.
“We even joked about having a 25-year reunion, and I think someone will make that happen.”
With the pilot program in the books, FREED will run again in summer 2023 and organizers are already looking at expansion, with the possibility of adding more groups of students over multiple weeks.
“This was such an incredible success, and I can’t wait to see what the future brings,” says Rollinson, who envisions different FREED chapters across Ontario in the years to come.
"Starting this program was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life,” says Terebiznik. “We were blown away by the support and we were never turned down by the people we looked to for help.”