As a junior high student, Michael Gast went on a school trip to an ecology camp at Cli Lake, approximately 100 kilometres west of his home community of Fort Simpson.
It was there that his career trajectory was set.
“That really inspired me to get a job in the environmental field. It was amazing to be out at a beautiful place learning about how it operates,” Gast said.
Years later, he would graduate from the University of Alberta, having attained a bachelor of science degree with a double major in biology and chemistry.
That helped him land a position as a wildlife technician with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Fort Simpson in January 2021. He’d worked with the department as a summer student previously.
“The job is very much what I learned in university. We do wildlife monitoring, which includes caribou, bison, bear, small mammals, some insects,” Gast said. “It’s wonderful to learn what our local government is doing for nature.
“I was learning mostly about Alberta’s ecosystems in university and now relate some of those concepts back to NWT ecosystems. I took quite a few chemistry courses that helped me understand some of the molecular changes to bodies and environments.”
Although his post-secondary education put him in a good position to step into the professional role, “a lot of the job is different from school because this job has more practical day-to-day things that need to get done that just aren’t taught in an academic setting,” he said, referring to organizing meetings and surveys and scrambling to find alternatives when there’s a shortage of materials.
Gast attended Thomas Simpson Secondary School, now known as Líídlįį Kúę Regional High School. Looking back, he said he had some friends who didn’t take their studies seriously and although he did, he could have applied himself more.
“Wanting to have a social life and studying is a hard juggle, as it is for most teenagers,” he acknowledged, but added that “during my time there I always planned on going to university, which drove me to get the grades needed to get into university. Although it wasn’t easy for me, I did have to put in effort to get good enough grades… If I could go back, I would spend a little more time studying to gain the skills needed in university.”
Upon arriving at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, he experienced what he called “culture shock.”
“Classes were massive and the atmosphere towards education was the opposite of what I experienced in high school. I did have to take multiple courses over (again) in university to pass them. In high school, I didn’t study at all except for exam season, which was maybe two weeks,” he said.
Gast received financial assistance through the Dehcho First Nations which eased the burden of pursuing a higher education.
“The scholarship made a huge difference. I did not have to worry about finances as much when I received it,” he said.
These days, he spends his working hours taking samples, doing inventories, getting items ready for surveys, assisting in surveys that require additional people scanning for animals, taking notes and performing data entry.
He added that he’s quite content with the start to his career.
“Not sure where I’ll be in 10 years but so far this job is great,” he said.