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Past Winner
2004 NSERC André Hamer Postgraduate Prize

Selena Smith

Doctoral Level

University of Alberta

Just call Selena Smith the Indiana Jones of the botanical world.

Smith, the first doctoral student to win NSERC's new André Hamer Postgraduate Prize, is a paleobotanist. Like the fictional archeologist, Smith spends her time immersed in the mysteries of the past. But unlike Jones, Smith is consumed with treasures less tangible than lost arks or abandoned temples.

She specializes in plants – flora that may one day help to date the archeological sites where they are found, or even relinquish the secrets of how they adapted to the world's great climatic shifts.

Now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Smith spends most of her days piecing together the fossilized remains of flowers that grew in the interior of British Columbia 48 million years ago. Specifically, her research involves rare monocots – a type of flowering plant whose embryos have only one seed leaf.

Smith and her colleagues are working on fossilized plant remains found at what's known as the Princeton chert. This mixed outcropping of coal deposits and fine black quartz (chert) is located eight kilometres south of Princeton, British Columbia, along the east bank of the Similkameen River. Within the chert, an abundance of fruits, seeds and plant structures have been anatomically preserved, suggesting the area was once an extensive wetland.

At the paleobotany lab in Edmonton, Smith cuts open samples from the tonnes of chert she and her friends have hauled back from Princeton. Then she etches the rock in hydrochloric acid to eat away the silica that surrounds the organic plant material. Using a peel to lift off the exposed layer, she embeds the plant remains in a kind of plastic sheet, so she can look at it under her microscope.

Before she cuts the chert, Smith never knows what plant material she'll find. "It's exciting to see, after you've cut a rock and etched it – it's like this whole world is revealed," she says.

So far, Smith has been working on three different plants, which may be ancestors of the plants we know today – or may be species that were previously undiscovered. Because many of the fossils she works with are plants that have shed their leaves, flowers and fruits, she has become a skilled puzzle master. She must piece together stems, leaves and flowers preserved in different places throughout the chert. The key is making sure the right part goes with the correct plant.

"It's not that easy," Smith confesses, with a laugh.

"DNA can't help, because the fossilized remains are too old," she says. Smith has to rely on her knowledge of plant anatomy, and often compares and contrasts the fossils with living plants to see if she can spot a relationship. It's the kind of fundamental science that contributes to our understanding of plant evolution.

"We try to figure out what plants are there, and other people can use that data in looking at paleoclimate and biogeography to help date other sites," says Smith.

Plants are often under-appreciated, Smith says, given that they deliver everything from the gas we put in our cars to the oxygen we breathe and the wood from which our homes are constructed. She hopes that her work will help to expose the role plants have played over millions of years, and enable us to recognize clues as to how they will evolve in the future.

"They've given us so much – it's neat to know how they've changed," she says.

The prize is named in memory of a promising young scientist who worked with Arthur McDonald, the 2003 winner of the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering. McDonald, a professor and University Research Chair in physics at Queen's University, donated $100,000 from his Herzberg award to establish two $10,000 annual prizes for outstanding candidates in NSERC's master's and doctoral scholarship competitions.