I came to Canada on January 1, 1970, to do a Masters in Science at McGill University, Montreal, and I had never seen so much snow. Being here is a throw of the dice; I knew nobody in Canada, and was clueless about the politics of 1970's Québec. I had chosen the field of Soil Zoology, inspired by Professor Brenda Healy, one of the Ecology lecturers at University College Dublin, where I was doing an Honours B.Sc. in Zoology. There were others in our small Honours class of seven who said they were going for graduate studies to North America, but none of them did, at least in 1970.
Its so easy to get hooked into Zoology; the first time I looked down the microscope at pond life on a slide and at soil animals wandering through soil like dinosaurs in the films I was hooked. At McGill, I was lucky in my Supervisors, Professors Stuart Hill and Keith Kevan, and in my graduate cohort, Indra Harry and Hai-Choo Lim, Chrissa Nestruck and Sandy Griswold. Soil Zoology was in the Department of Entomology and centred at MacDonald Campus, at the west end of Montreal Island. MacDonald Campus also had an interesting mix of English and French graduate students and I met my future husband, Guy Pelletier, among the crazy French microbiologists.
Serendipity took over after I returned to Ireland with my M.Sc. and became a Research Assistant at Trinity College Dublin, on the Irish component of the International Biological Program. The IBP was one of the first UN sponsored worldwide ecological initiatives comparing biological productivity in various terrestrial ecosystems. Ireland was part of the Tundra Biome, because of its extensive bogs and peatlands, with a field site at Glenamoy, Co. Mayo. As a Research Assistant I covered all the soil animals not covered by graduate students, and went to Glenamoy monthly to collect samples. And, most importantly I represented the Irish cohort at a Tundra Workshop held in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1973.
That’s where I started a love affair with a truly wild landscape – the arctic and subarctic. It was the Glenamoy landscape magnified a thousand-fold, harsh, beautiful, and with infinite visibility. When I returned to McGill for my Doctoral (Ph.D.) studies, I knew I wanted to do research on soil animals in this landscape. With the help of the tight arctic scientist community, especially Professor Steve MacLean of University of Alaska, Fairbanks, I researched soil mites in Alaska, the eastern Canadian arctic, Igloolik Island in the Fox Basin and the Russian Far East. Fortuitously, as a Research Scientist with Agriculture Canada for the last 30 years, I spent many summers in the western Canadian arctic. The similarity between the soil animals of Glenamoy and the eastern Canadian arctic are well-documented; the western arctic is more similar to the Russian arctic. Also, in the western arctic there are grizzlies, amazing bird life, and the caribou migrations that raise the hair on your neck with their beauty.
I've an Emeritus status now that I'm retired from Agriculture Canada, and continue do research and publish on soil mites, under my married surname - Behan-Pelletier. Most of my research is on the systematics of Oribatida, a large group of soil mites. But I'm also active in promoting knowledge of soil biodiversity. The Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas was published this year (2016) and I'm really proud of being part of it. It can be freely downloaded at:
and has been done so over 30,000 times!
Its invaluable for biology teachers worldwide and a true coffee-table book of photos of the beauty of soil biodiversity.
I live in l'Estrie, the Eastern Townships of the Province of Québec, just a few kilometers from the Canada-USA border with my husband Guy. The community is unusual because of the close proximity of English and French from Québec and Vermont. Vermonters cross the border for pizza, and the best Boulangerie in a 50km radius; I cross the border for gym class. The cross-border communities share the Haskell Opera house and Library, which were purposely built straddling the border at the turn of the 20th century. I park my car in Canada, and walk to the Library entrance in the USA, by the flower-pots blocking cars crossing the border illegally. In a post-9/11 world, it is a enclave of civility.