Student Story: Liam MacNeil

Liam MacNeil is in pursuit of the bigger picture. Where he finds it is an unlikely place: microorganisms and microfossils found in the world’s largest Arctic polynya.

Liam presented at his first Science Atlantic conference this winter (AUGC) where he received the Science Atlantic Best Paper Award. While he knew he enjoyed public speaking he also appreciated the opportunity to meet other Atlantic scientists.

“The networking was really incredible. Everyone was exceptionally friendly. I got to meet a lot of people from different universities and different programs.” Those connections came in handy when he saw familiar faces at other conferences he has attended since AUGC.

Initially planning to study the Humanities, Liam found himself drawn to the questions asked and answered by the scientific disciplines. After spending time in the Forestry, Chemistry and Biology Departments, he landed in Dr. Audrey Limoges’ Earth Sciences lab at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton.

With Dr. Limoges, Liam studies past and present production of diatoms (a very important group of ocean microorganisms) and how it is affected by climate-driven changes.

Liam explains that diatoms are the most productive organism in the polynya’s food web. Therefore, any change in diatom production reverberates throughout the entire web and affects the narwhals, belugas, walruses and human indigenous populations who live there.

“…to contemplate broad questions on a regional and global scale was what gave me an affinity for this research”

For Liam, the environmental flux that diatoms and their fossils can be used to measure functions as a way to see into the past and anticipate our future.

“This idea to contemplate broad questions on a regional and global scale was what gave me an affinity for this research. I felt far less like I was in a niche; I had the opportunity to dip into a number of  different fields.”

Remaining unbound by any kind of “discipline bubble” is important to Liam. “I’m a really big fan of the idea that the boundaries between the natural sciences are actually an artefact of university structure. Natural phenomenon aren’t bound by the scientific disciplines, they are the product of them,” he said.

consilience: agreement between the approaches to a topic of different academic subjects, especially science and the humanities

He cites the definition of consilience, “the unity of knowledge,” as his guiding principle. While he forewent studying history and literature, Liam continues to find value in, “the breadth and depth literary fields bring to science,” he shared.

When Liam isn’t contributing to the Atlantic Student Research Journal, running, biking, surfing or rocking climbing – activities he says are “a natural complement to studying earth sciences,” he is an avid reader.

His favourite recent read is “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which he cautions is daunting in length but well worth the read.

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