Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry

Master's Degree Programme, 2 years, Trondheim

Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry

– Students' Experience

Emily Hill  |  Jose Castaño Ortiz  |  Andrea Faltynkova  |  Maria Villegas

Emily Hill

Emily Hill holding a baby bird in the arctic. Photo

Comes from: West Midlands, United Kingdom
Because of: Svalbard/Spitsbergen
Studies: Metal pollution in the eggs of migratory birds

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I love the Arctic

Why did you come to NTNU?

I’ve been on an ERASMUS exchange on Svalbard in the Arctic and I just fell in love with it. So I knew that I really wanted to get back there. I knew that the NTNU professors have an affiliation with UNIS, the University Center at Svalbard. So I figured I want to work with them to do research in the Arctic.

Also, I’d never studied anything related to pollution before. It was such a new concept to me; I immediately became interested. I never thought that pollution would occur in the Arctic. So thought this is what I want to do. I love the Arctic and I hate that society has an impact on it from so far away.

What’s so great about the Arctic?

I think it is so different from anything that anybody experiences. The landscapes are spectacular. Coming out of the dark period and in the light it’s something you’d have to see to experience. It’s very magical, I think. Also, when I came to Longyearbyen, it was such a fantastic community. It’s just got such a warm feeling even though it’s freezing cold most of the year.

What is your own research in the Arctic about?

I’m working with Eider ducks and I look at metals in their eggs. I collected eggs from birds that have geo-loggers on their feet. So, we know if they are overwintering in Norway or Iceland. What I am trying to do is to compare their migration patterns with the different metal signatures in their eggs.

Any polar bear encounters?

I didn’t actually see any, which I’m okay about. If there would have been a polar bear, we had to stop our fieldwork and just stay away because it’s better than having a situation. Obviously, we carried rifles with us but you really don’t want to have to take the gun out. And also, the bears eat the ducks…

Did you also take courses on Svalbard?

I took three courses in spring. One was in Arctic chemistry. We collected our samples on Svalbard, took them to the lab and analyzed them for pesticides. I really enjoyed that because in the first semester it was all theory that we then could apply directly. Another course was in environmental toxicology, which was all about pollutants in the Arctic animals, birds, mammals, fish. I loved that. Seeing the international guest lecturers bouncing ideas was fantastic.

Jose Castaño Ortiz

Jose Castaño Ortiz holding a bird of prey. Photo

Comes from: Barcelona, Spain
Because: He wanted to stay after an ERASMUS semester
Studies: How chemicals affect bird immune systems

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You feel like you can achieve everything here

What made you come to Norway?

In my Bachelor’s, I was involved in ecology but I saw no clear application of this. So, I did an internship here at NTNU. I saw that, pollution is something that affects the environment and us. It directly links to society. Environmental toxicology connects both fields and makes ecology applicable. With this, you can work in the industry or you are involved in risk assessment or you can work in academia. That motivated me to study here.

How was it studying here compared to your previous studies?

It was very different in terms of the quality of the education. We are really few people in the program. I was used to study in huge classrooms with hundred people. Professors didn’t even know me. Here it is a more familiar environment, even though the department is quite big. I feel really close to everyone, the classmates and the staff. That was a big change.

Tell us about your research at NTNU!

We first went to the field and collected blood and feather samples from goshawks [birds of prey]. I analyzed it for perfluorinated compounds to assess the level of contamination of different bird populations in Norway and Spain. The second part is more experimental and we look at the effects on the immune system. We grow chicken cells and expose them to a virus. We want to see how chemicals affect the response to infection at the molecular level. From a broader perspective, if the immune response is altered, the birds exposed to these chemicals may be more susceptible to disease.

What are your future plans?

Before I started, I was not sure on how to orient. I thought environmental toxicology and chemistry is such a broad discipline. This would provide many different opportunities to decide on a job later. Now I’m really into research and would like to continue with academia! The logical next thing is a PhD. So, I will start exploring different opportunities.

Andrea Faltynkova

Andrea Faltynkova in the lab. Photo

Comes from: London, Ontario, Canada
Because of: Norway’s nature
Studies: Environmental impacts of carbon capturing technologies

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The people I have been able to work with are really exceptional

Why did you decide to study Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry at NTNU?

At NTNU I really liked that it is a combination of a course- and thesis-based Master’s. As I was working for a couple of years, I didn’t feel ready for jumping into a full thesis-based Master’s. So, I wanted to join a program that had both components. I was also drawn to Norway for other reasons: Nature is a huge part of my life and I really appreciate the opportunities Norway has to offer in terms of recreation. So I was not only attracted to have a successful academic career at NTNU but also be a happy and whole person. You know, not only focus on school but also have a successful social life.

Did you become more of a “whole person” here?

After a year and a bit, I certainly feel like I have achieved more of a work life balance here that I have in the past. When I first arrived, I expected that level of urgency with everything we have in North America. In Norway, everybody was telling me ‘Don’t worry about it, just relax, go to Dovrefjell national park and enjoy nature.’

What about student life?

Trondheim has a great size, it’s not too big, it’s not too small. The best part is, how easy it is to become involved in the student community, whether you like to ski or climb or you’re interested in literature or badminton or soccer. Whatever it is, there is some sort of group on campus. It’s really easy to find a community that shares your interests, go out on weekend trips, explore Norway, try new things you have never done before.

That was very important for me, coming from another country. I was worried about having a sufficient social network. The fact that NTNU does have such great student communities makes it really easy for you to find your place here and build connections and friendships with people.

What is your own research about?

My thesis is part of a project on carbon capturing technology. We simulate the leakage of CO2 in a unique titanium mesocosm, a contained environment. I investigate how CO2 leakage affects trace elements like iron and phosphorus in sediments. It’s been a very cool experience to work with so many different people, engineers, biologists, chemists. Getting that holistic perspective has been very educational.

So, would carbon capturing offer some future career for you?

I worked as an intern with Statoil (link) this summer. Seeing all their different branches, there are a lot of opportunities. I think this Master’s degree prepares me for many different types of jobs that I don’t even know exist yet. You can be working for private companies, for the government, you can work in so many different capacities. For now, it’s difficult to see where I will end up.

Maria Villegas

Maria Villegas in the lab. Photo

Comes from: Houston, Texas
Because of: The winter
Studies: Effect of iron on marine cyanobacteria

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I feel like I have really grown as a person and as a researcher

What made you come to Norway?

Having lived in Texas, California and Mexico, I wanted to have the seasonal changes. Skiing and shoveling snow out of your way, that’s never been part of my life and that was something I wanted to experience. So, in Trondheim last year I biked, hiked and skied the whole winter, something I have never done before. That was fun but also challenging.

Why did you choose to study Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry?

I knew I wanted to take a Master’s program after working for some time in the chemical industry. Then it was all about productivity. The environment was not a big part in this picture. But it’s something I deeply care about. So, after a while, I felt like I want to work on the other side. Because I love chemistry, studying environmental toxicology and chemistry was an opportunity to combine both.

Was it challenging starting to study at NTNU?

The biggest experience for me is that Norwegians are so aware of their performance. They always want to improve what they are doing. I see that everywhere, even in Volleyball. I’m playing with a Trondheim club and we talk a lot in between matches on how to improve our game and communication...

After being here for some time, did studying here meet your expectations?

In the working world, no one will hold your hand. That’s what I am used to and that’s what I got: With my thesis, it was all about independence and I get to design my own research. This kind of freedom is pretty amazing and I have a lot of room to do a lot of things. Also, it’s amazing that NTNU is offering the opportunity to combine field and lab experience. I am very satisfied with that.

What will you do with this new experience?

I don’t know which job I am going to get but I believe it is definitely a plus that I have learnt about so many different topics and areas. That really enriches my education. I have learnt so much by just being in a new country and seeing all these different ways people learn. I feel like I have really grown as a person and as a researcher.