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Community, Collaboration, and Curiosity   


February 25, 2019

By Elissa Sweeney-Bergen

Over the rim of an empty cup, a big smile and brown eyes peer up at me. I’m pretty sure she knows how cute she is and at about 3 feet tall and a whole 6 years of life experience, she knows how to be convincing. She’s asking for another cup of sockeye smolts to release into the river. As part of an annual celebration of the outmigration of salmon smolts to the ocean, we had asked the kids to get into a line, so they could each release one cup of wiggling little fish. Just one. But, of course, the line quickly turned into an infinite circle, and our planned 15-minute activity was pushing the half hour mark.  There’s more big grins and empty cups waiting behind this one. How could I turn them away?  


I don’t. We continue to release young salmon for almost an hour. The kids gently pour the smolts out into the river and gaze at the water long after their shimmering bodies have disappeared into the chocolate waters of spring freshet. Each round of the kid-powered infinite circle comes with new questions– How do the salmon know which way to go? Why are they leaving? When will they be back?  


I know I probably had that same ear-to-ear grin, asking questions about ecology, fish and wildlife, before I knew words like ecosystem, population, or, . . . ugh. . . mixed-effects modelling.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s a quick question about our research or an hour-long story about walking creeks packed with spawning salmon as a child, I rarely turn away. 


I’ve had the incredible fortune of being mentored and guided by people who have followed and nurtured their own curiosity. They’ve taken their knowledge and experience and gone on to use it to inform and guide how they learn about and preserve the resources and land they call home. This is how I began my Master’s degree. I now investigate salmon habitat alteration and life-cycles, but through the lens of First Nations territorial rights and food resources sovereignty. This opportunity and honour comes with responsibility – I want to foster curiosity and engagement in salmon research in the community, and I want community values and priorities about their land and resources to guide the research I participate in. In this way, I view science as more than numbers, theories and statistics. My science is also about the values, experiences, and concerns of my coworkers and community. And, when it comes to kids who are excited about their ‘backyard’ salmon, it’s about giving everyone another cup of wriggling smolts and watching where their curiosity takes them. 

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