Vanier Scholarship Announcement – Cara James

August 29, 2023
Cara James (credit: Junyi Sun)

Cara B G James, Vanier Scholar and Ph.D. student in Geophysics at UBC EOAS, originally from the UK

Scroll down to watch our interview with Cara!

What is your Ph.D. project?

I'm doing a Ph.D. in the environmental impact of deep-sea mining, particularly looking at particulate clouds and the dissolution of metals from these clouds and how that may change the environment around seabed mining sites.

What is deep-sea mining and why do people want to do it?

Deep-sea mining is the process of retrieving potato-sized polymetallic manganese nodules, which are found lying on the sea floor in the deep oceans. The nodules are rich in metals that we need for the green energy transition, specifically nickel, cobalt, copper, and also a lot of rare earth elements. We need these metals for energy storage, such as electric vehicle batteries, as well as other sustainable technology products.

What are the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining?

To get these nodules, a remotely operated vehicle—like an undersea tractor—goes along the sea floor, picks up the top 10-15cm of the loose seabed sediment, and sifts out the nodules, removing as much of the sea floor sediment as possible. This process creates a lot of turbulence and mixing that kicks up large clouds of mud. The first part of what I study is these clouds: the dynamics within them and how that process impacts their behaviour and the dissolution of metals within them.

The second environmental issue is that when these nodules are taken up to the ship and get cleaned again, more little bits of sediment and nodules are then injected back into the ocean. We don’t know how that's going to happen exactly, since the regulations haven't been set yet, but it's important that we know what effect that's going to have on not only the deep sea, but maybe even the mid-water column of the ocean, where there’s potential to interact with areas of water frequented by open water fishing, amongst other issues.

What methods are you using in your Ph.D. work?

It's really expensive to investigate the deep-sea environment in situ (i.e. from a research vessel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean), so instead I work in a fluid flow lab here at UBC EOAS. I design analogue experiments to mimic the deep ocean where the clouds are, which we can then scale up to the real-world for comparison.

What path have you taken that has led you to a Ph.D. at UBC EOAS?

I did my Master's thesis on an adjacent deep-sea mining topic, at which point I was really motivated about the physics and maths of the problem. The topic of deep-sea really hooked me when I first heard about it, and I wanted to be part of this new and pivotal field. I want to work out what's going on down there, and most importantly produce work that gives the regulatory body solid argument to base their guidelines on, and make sure that we don't mess up this amazing habitat.

What is special about doing your Ph.D. at UBC EOAS?

Studying at UBC and especially in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences (EOAS) allows me to be interdisciplinary. This is a huge department: we have people working on deep-sea biology and mineralogy, and in my group, we work on these particle clouds - historically from volcanoes, but the methods we use can be applied in the same to deep-sea mining. I get to chat with all these people, which allows me to think about the problem as a whole instead of just one small bit. Not only do I get to work with colleagues in my department, but I can also collaborate with researchers from the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) and also the Institute of Oceans and Fisheries (IOF). These people are experts on exactly what I need to think about, so I'm not constrained.

What are you most excited about now?

I'm in the second year of my Ph.D. now, and I'm really getting a feel for the shape of my project. I'm looking forward to getting down in the lab and getting my hands dirty doing some experiments, because I've been planning them and thinking about them for so long now!

How will becoming a Vanier Scholar affect the path of your Ph.D.?

I'm very grateful for being selected as a Vanier Scholar. The main thing that this will change for my Ph.D. is the sense of financial security, not just for my day-to-day life but also my research. With the Vanier Scholarship, I won’t be constrained to researching only what industry wants to look at and fund, but I can play around a little bit more and make my own decisions. For example, I've decided to add a policy chapter to my Ph.D., which is a new and exciting frontier for me. I'm going to look at the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining and then in the last part of my Ph.D., I can address questions like “how can we change regulation to mitigate as many of these environmental effects as we can?”.

What advice would you give to anyone applying for the Vanier Scholarship?

The advice I would give is that you need to make your individuality and drive come across in the application. You’ll write a personal statement and get reference letters to demonstrate that you show excellence in academia but also in your research potential, but be sure to convey how excited you are about your project, and if possible, think about and the impacts of your project on the field globally, and for Canada. The leadership side of the application is also important, because that's what makes the Vanier Scholarship unique. You need to tell the committee why you are special and why you deserve more than anyone else to have this scholarship.