In the landscape of northern science in Canada, two scientists stand above the crowd showing excellence in their fields of study. Louis Fortier and Serge Payette have demonstrated a longstanding commitment to northern research, each being awarded a Canada research chair, published numerous times and work to shape the next generation of northern scientists. To honour and support their life’s work, Payette and Fortier each received a Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research, in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Explore below to learn more about these two award-winning Canadian scientists.
To read more about the Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research, visit www.westonfoundation.org/northern/Pages
Devoting his life to studying the wilds of northern Quebec wasn’t part of Serge Payette’s original career plan when he was a 22-year-old student fresh out of university in 1965. But when the newly established Centre d’études nordiques (CEN) at Québec’s Université Laval came calling with a summer job offer, Payette jumped at the opportunity, spending a few life-changing months camped on the shores of Lac Payne in the central Ungava Peninsula, about 1,400 kilometres north of Québec, working on the tundra.
“It was illuminating,” says Payette. “I was very impressed by the landscape and the way of life, and I told myself that one day, I would go back.”
Payette, now 69, did return and eventually went on to become a professor in the department of biology at Université Laval, where he still teaches; the director of CEN from 1979 to 1986 and from 1996 to 2000; and the Northern Research Chair on Disturbance Ecology at Laval, a position he has held since 2003. In 2011, he was awarded the Prix Marie-Victorin, the highest honour given by the Government of Quebec for contributions in pure and applied sciences. That same year Payette was the inaugural winner of the Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research.
Payette believes that one of the most important impacts of the Weston Family Prize has been its positive influence on young scientists who are now more than ever interested in pursuing a career in northern science. “The creation of this award is timely with the perspective of increased development in the Canadian North. Among all the benefits of receiving the Weston Prize, it is certainly true to say that my research program is in a way upgraded,” he says. “But given the national exposure and the merit of the award, I am now and forever condemned to achieve and maintain a very high standard of scientific research. This is great for me because it gives a new and significant impetus towards excellence in northern research.”
Payette has already spent more than 40 years studying the effects of human and natural disturbances on Quebec’s boreal forests, and his research has led to a greater understanding of the forces that have helped shape the region. By studying tree rings, for instance, he’s been able to determine when fires tore through the area and how intense they were.
Payette’s work is especially important because the landscape he studies is changing in front of his eyes. The annual mean temperature in the area east of Hudson Bay, he says, has increased by at least 2°C. The permafrost is thawing, and the treeline has begun a slow march north. Along the eastern coast of Hudson Bay and Labrador, new seedlings have begun to take root beyond their historical limits. Payette is also seeing changes in the commercial forest and its ability to regenerate after a forest fire. “This is new,” he says, noting that the forest is thinning. “It’s not clear whether it is climate-related, but the forest is degrading.”
While at CEN, Payette and his colleagues have helped shepherd the centre through changes to research-funding structures in Quebec and Canada, building CEN into a thriving network of modern laboratories and remote field camps, sometimes with their own hands. At one wild camp, Payette, his son and a colleague began building tree houses in 1996. They’ve slowly improved the structures over the years, transforming them into comfortable workspaces equipped with solar panels and internet access.
While the CEN facilities provide essential technical services and lab space, it’s the mix of people who use them that really makes a difference. CEN draws together students and researchers from diverse disciplines to help them understand environmental change and work toward the sustainable development of Canada’s northern regions.
Despite Payette’s success as a scientist, he believes that teaching has been the most rewarding aspect of his career. His students have gone on to become professors in Canada, Europe and Mexico. “I’m very proud of that.”