University of Alberta PhD student Heidi Cossey has received a number of academic and leadership awards over the years, but she says she was pleasantly surprised to be awarded a prestigious Vanier Scholarship. “It’s really encouraging to get the reassurance that you’re doing a good job in your research,” she says. “And financially it’s huge, I don’t have to worry about finding part-time work during my PhD program, I can focus completely on my research.”
Cossey is just getting started on lab experiments that will lead to a better understanding of the long-term behavior of tailings, the leftover materials from oil sands mining. Her interest is pit lakes, which are used around the world as a safe solution for tailings after mine closure. The research is part of the NSERC / COSIA Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Tailings Geotechnique program in the university’s department of civil and environmental engineering. COSIA partnered with the University of Alberta on this program to advance the rate at which tailings ponds in the oil sands can be reclaimed.
Cossey grew up in Innisfail, Alberta, her life bumping up against the oil sands, and she got interested in environmental engineering early on. “Tailings are a big engineering challenge and they have always piqued my interest,” she says. She enjoys remediation work (cleaning up contaminated ground or water) and in between degrees worked briefly on the remediation of Giant Mine, a former gold mine near Yellowknife. “The more you know about tailings and remediation the more interesting they become,” she says.
Initially, as a first-year student, Cossey wasn’t sure what she wanted to do and completed a year in the faculty of arts before discovering that her favourite class was calculus. She transferred into civil environmental engineering and graduated with a bachelor’s degree at the top of her class. After a stint of consulting, a master’s degree followed where Cossey tested a new chemical process using high pressure carbon dioxide to extract residual bitumen from tailings.
A self-described over-achiever, Cossey says she never really planned on doing a PhD. “But I love research,” she says. She’s now diving into the behavior of tailings in pit lakes to better understand their chemical, microbiological and geotechnical characteristics and how those might play out over the life of the lake.
The Vanier Scholarship recognizes leadership as well as academic excellence and Cossey has demonstrated significant achievement in this area too. She was instrumental in the launch of the university’s Female Engineering Mentorship (FEM) Program in 2018. The program – the first of its kind in Canada – matches prospective female engineering students with female undergraduate engineering student mentors to support them in their transition to university and to a career in a Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM) field.
The federal government created the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship program in 2008 to help Canada attract and retain more world-class doctoral students. Valued at $50,000 a year for three years, up to 166 scholarships are awarded annually to PhD students across the country who demonstrate leadership skills and high academic achievement in the social sciences and humanities, natural sciences or engineering and health.
COSIA has partnered with academic institutions across Canada on more than a dozen NSERC chair programs to advance research in the areas of land, tailings and water.
Innovators: if you’re working in the area of clay and tailings, you may be interested COSIA’s innovation opportunity Molding the Clay of Change: Transforming tailings into nutrients for remediation.
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