Dr. Cathryn Abbott - Keeping Up with a Changing Climate

As a Research Scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Dr. Cathryn Abbott is actively creating sustainable solutions in the face of climate change. Originally from Kingston, Ontario, Cathryn’s love for biology started back in high school. She went on to specialize in genetics through her undergrad and PhD. Eventually, her passion and skills took her to B.C.’s coast, where she and her team are using ground-breaking testing to monitor changes in our aquatic resources and ecosystems.

“The most interesting part of my work is the forensic element,” says Cathryn. “I take samples from the field into the lab and learn things that you can’t just see in the field. There’s a real puzzle that I get to solve in the lab about things that are happening in the natural environment that you can’t do using normal visualization techniques.”

Cathryn’s testing methods allow her and her team to assess the impacts human activity are having on Canada’s water and marine life. 

“The reality is that humans are relying on our aquatic resources for a lot of things, whether we’re aware of it or not, and we put pressure on those resources. It’s important to monitor how the environment is responding to those pressures to make sure what we’re doing is sustainable over the long term.”

Aquaculture or fish farming is a controversial method of dealing with the increasing demand for fish in Canadians’ diet. But how does that impact our wild fish and delicate aquatic ecosystem, and are the processes we are using sustainable? Cathryn’s team is finding the answers.

“A project I’m working on now uses environmental DNA to test the impacts of fish farming on the seafloor. I really love applying these genetic tools to answer real-world questions on the ground about resource sustainability.” Dr. Abbott's team is bridging the gap, between a fast-changing environment and a fast-paced biotech sector that is trying to keep up. “There are problems and there are powerful biotechnology tools, but there’s a lot of work to get those tools to address the problems. My challenge is to try and bring those two together as quickly and effectively as possible.”

“The environmental needs are real, and are becoming urgent with climate change,” Cathryn says. And while more resources and funding would be an improvement, Cathryn is adamant that this research needs to stay in the public sector.

“Federal research happens over decades, and we really do need to answer questions over long timeframes. They’re not secure if they’re happening in a chop-and-change environment.”

In addition to providing stability, keeping this work public ensures that the raison d'être of this research remains firmly rooted in protecting Canada’s resources.

“All of the work we do in the federal lab is directly tied to our mandate, which is to be of service to Canadians,” says Cathryn. “Really important applied work happens in the labs. And we’re accountable to Canadians. There’s no other agenda.”