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Sizable scholarship helps with 'house' work

Although he is far away from his family in Jasper and around Alberta, Tristen Brown is thinking of home. More specifically, he is thinking about Indigenous housing.
Tristen Brown has a lot of reasons to smile these days and hopes to have even more when he sees the results of his work with Ahmed Elshaer. | Stefan Johnson Media photo

His thoughts and his work have been bolstered recently after he was named as a recipient of a notable and sizable scholarship. The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship comes with a handy $50,000 boost for each of three years, totalling $150,000.


"It feels very good because it's the number one prestigious PhD scholarship in Canada. Both domestic and international students apply for it," Brown said. 

"It's amazing to have that title under your name when you produce research, especially under Lakehead, because I'm the first engineering student to receive this scholarship at Lakehead, and I'm only the third student out of all the time that Lakehead has offered PhD positions that have been awarded the Vanier scholarship."

Brown is a graduate research student working toward his PhD in civil engineering at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. His professor, Ahmed Elshaer, knew that Brown would be an ideal candidate for the Vanier Scholarship.

The scholarship's aim is to attract and retain world-class doctoral students who demonstrate high levels of leadership skills and scholastic achievement in graduate studies in the social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering and health.

Brown is working with Elshaer on research to find innovative housing solutions to overcome the ongoing housing challenges for Indigenous communities subjected to extreme climate conditions throughout Canada. Their target is modular housing.

"As an Indigenous person, I could see the difference between the housing on my reserve and the housing in off-reserve cities," Brown is quoted as saying, on the university's Champions of Change webpage where he is profiled.

The page indicates that Statistics Canada found that 43.9 per cent of households on reserves lived in dwellings that were either crowded, needed major repairs, or cost 30 per cent or more of their income during the years 2011 to 2016.

"I definitely believe this is a huge problem now and it needs [to] be addressed immediately," Brown said. 

The Vanier Scholarship is validation not just for Brown's excellence in his leadership skills as well as his top marks. It also demonstrates a high value on the work that he and Elshaer are heading.

"We're looking at cold climates, wind analysis . . . we're also looking at installation and the transportation, because the cost to transport to these remote communities becomes very costly,” Brown said.

“It's time consuming, especially when you only have a certain timeframe in the winter season to transport to those remote locations."

Continuing that study will be an evaluation of an affordable housing solution for these communities. They are looking at modular housing as the key.

Elshaer said that he started the strategic project for his research group with three PhD students in April 2022. Brown's part in the effort is working on structural options while correlating the uncertainty of climate data across Canada and linking that to the distribution of Indigenous communities. 

He is working on "how to optimize the structural system for the modular structures to resist those climate actions," Elshaer said, confirming that there is still much work to be done.

"The beauty of it is that we are working in parallel so there is always communication between those research directions,” Elshaer said.

“We are planning on having by next summer a close description on how those modules will look like either structurally or from an installation point of view, from the connection point of view. We're working fast. We're doing also experimental testing in Toronto, likely in November."

Brown said that it's important work that he jumped at when he was offered it.

"I didn't blink twice to take upon that offer because I knew that if I can be a part of that, I can make an impact on my own community, which is amazing."

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