Skip to main content

Marine scientist Arthi Ramachandran is helping to fight climate change through policy

The Concordia PhD candidate found a new career path while researching in Canada’s north
April 14, 2023
By Jordan Whitehouse

A woman wearing a colourful toque and red winter jacket stands smiling in front of a red icebreaker boat in the Arctic Arthi Ramachandran, BSc 14, travelled aboard the Canadian Coast Guard’s largest icebreaker, the Louis S. St-Laurent, on two research expeditions to the Arctic.

In her first research expedition in 2016, Arthi Ramachandran, BSc 14 (biology), was standing on a thin sheet of ice in the Beaufort Sea, a body of water cradled by Alaska, and Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories. She didn’t need to look for the three kilometres of cold Arctic Ocean dropping below her. She felt it run up her leg as her foot broke through the ice.

“It was crazy,” she recalls. “Not even a decade ago, this area was covered in thick ice and now we were struggling to find it. It was quite eye opening.” 

It was so eye opening, in fact, that it helped shape what Ramachandran wanted to do with her life. Before those expeditions, the Concordia PhD candidate thought she would carry on down the typical academia path. But those ventures into Canada’s north shifted her focus, and she’s now translating her marine-science expertise into policy that might help people mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Now, as she finishes her PhD in biology — focusing on microbial ecology — Ramachandran is already working as a policy analyst with Natural Resources Canada and the Office of the Chief Science Advisor of Canada.

She says she wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t seen — and felt — those real impacts of climate change in the north. And, while a career in policy may be a non-traditional choice after a PhD, Ramachandran is happy with the pivot.

“It’s great if you want to become a professor or researcher,” she says. “But there are way more PhD graduates than academic positions, so I think it’s interesting to open people’s eyes to different paths you can take. I didn’t know that the science policy world existed when I started my PhD, but I’m glad I found it.”   

An early interest in ocean life

Ramachandran’s path towards marine science began in high school. In grade 10, she went on a week-long field trip to the Huntsman Marine Science Centre in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick, where she got to see and study everything from sea stars to sea urchins. She was hooked almost instantly.

A few years later, she started her undergrad in Concordia’s Department of Biology, where she developed a keen interest in ocean bacteria.

A woman wearing a purple and black toque and black long-sleeved shirt works in a lab collecting bacterial cells Arthi Ramachandran, BSc 14, collects bacterial cells from Arctic Ocean water for her PhD research.

“Whenever we talk about bacteria, it’s always pathogens and the scary stuff, but we don’t spend that much time thinking about all the good ecosystem services they provide,” Ramachandran says. “Ninety per cent of the biomass is bacterial, so I wanted to learn more about it.”

That interest eventually led to her doing a PhD at Concordia focused on a group of bacteria called methylophilaceae. These bacteria have a long evolutionary history of existing in both freshwater and marine environments. Ramachandran has been looking for them in the Arctic Ocean to see what evolutionary changes they’ve undergone that are associated with the rapidly changing environmental conditions there.

As for why she decided to stay at Concordia for her graduate work, she says it had a lot do with her PhD supervisor, David Walsh, associate professor in the Department of Biology and Canada Research Chair in Microbial Biology and Genomics, and the opportunities his lab provided. 

“For grad school, a lot of emphasis is on where you go, but I think it’s important that you click well with your supervisors and are working on a project that you’re really passionate about,” she says.

From the lab to the Arctic

Ramachandran’s passion project took her all the way to the Arctic on three research expeditions. Two were aboard the Canadian Coast Guard’s largest icebreaker, the Louis S. St-Laurent. The third was to the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.   

Not only did Ramachandran get to witness the impacts of climate change on those trips, but in Nunavut she got to hear about them directly from locals.

“I met different people who told me about how the migrations of animals like muskox and caribou have changed, how hunting seasons have changed, how their ability to go out on the ice safely has changed,” she says. “And, of course, there are also issues with permafrost thawing, which causes issues with houses and structural support.”

Ramachandran’s goal now is to use her marine science background to help decision makers support people as they deal with these rapid changes. She has done some of that as a policy analyst with the federal government, but she wants do more — perhaps with an international organization.

“These aren’t issues limited to national borders,” she says. “To be able to work with people in the north from different countries, backgrounds, areas of expertise and ways of knowing is really key to coming up with solutions to the climate crisis.”

Back to top

© Concordia University