Meet UC’s Newest Rhodes Scholar, Jessica Phillips

Cynthia Macdonald
Magazine Section: 

Having grown up in the dense and congested streets of Beijing, it’s no surprise that Jessica Phillips has a special appreciation for wide-open spaces. The fourth-year science student’s tireless dedication to the natural world has not gone unnoticed: this fall, she will enter Oxford University as one of the University of Toronto’s three 2016 Rhodes Scholars.

The daughter of two psychiatrists (one Canadian, the other American) who elected to spend their lives in China, Phillips was born in Hong Kong and attended local schools, where all her classes were conducted in Mandarin. A high school field trip to the other side of the world first sparked her interest in species conservation.

“I went to Belize and learned to dive,” says the genial 22-year-old. “I saw sea turtles swimming under me, and coral reefs, and sharks. Coming from the big city, I’d never seen anything like it! It was really eye-opening for me to see areas that were so unexploited.”

After another brief but life-changing trip to a completely different climate zone – Antarctica – Phillips knew her future lay in helping to safeguard animal habitats against the ravages of climate change and overdevelopment. She now specializes in ecology and evolutionary biology, with a major in biodiversity and conservation biology. While she’s at Oxford, she hopes to return once again to world’s southernmost continent.

“I’m particularly interested in studying penguins,” she says. “There are a number of species, some of which need to live close to water. But as the climate changes and ice cover gets reduced, these species are having to shift their range.” This trend is wreaking havoc with their food sources, Phillips explains, which “could definitely have negative impacts on their population.”

Penguins are but one of many animals that have captured Phillips’ imagination since she began doing fieldwork at U of T. After her second year, she received a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council award that enabled her to work with Professor Martin Krkosek’s team at the Salmon Coast Field Station off Vancouver Island. There, she completed a project on coho salmon feeding behavior, and assisted graduate students with their research. She is now lead author on a manuscript (currently under review at a scientific journal) that emerged from this work.

“It was my first real fieldwork experience. Before that, I had a kind of romanticized idea of what that would involve – in my mind, I had visions of northern lights and National Geographic photographs,” she laughs. “Of course, real fieldwork can involve being out in the rain for three hours, and getting so cold you can’t feel your fingers. But I still really like it. There’s also a great sense of community.”

Phillips (who is, coincidentally, an avid photographer herself) has also studied the epidemiology of daphnia, a tiny form of plankton, and is currently looking at temperature sensitivity in parasites. She spent last summer in Churchill, Manitoba, working under the supervision of Laura McKinnon, a post-doctoral student from Professor Ken Welch’s lab at UTSC. There, she studied the effects of climate change on sub-arctic hummingbirds – a species whose insect-based diet is also being threatened.

“The arctic is getting warmer earlier, so the bugs emerge earlier,” she says. “Unfortunately, the birds can’t evolve fast enough to time their migration to the time when the bugs are appearing.”

McKinnon characterizes Phillips as “excellent to have in the field.” Her work involved collecting eggs, incubating them until they hatched, and monitoring how temperature changes affected the chicks. “I sent her up north with limited training on the technical respirometry equipment she was using, but she mastered it quickly,” as well as troubleshooting ably and sending back quality data, McKinnon says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better volunteer.”

Phillips stresses that while awareness of climate change is generally strong, scientists have a greater need than ever to keep informing the public of findings such as these: “publicizing our research means it will have a greater impact, and make change more likely to happen,” she says.

In this she’s been inspired by one of her favourite instructors at U of T – psychology professor Dan Dolderman, an activist whose work emphasizes the connection between humans and the environment. In an effort to get into his wildly popular Psych 100 class, Phillips recalls spending three days refreshing the course enrolment website until, to her delight, someone dropped out.

Though her conservation efforts have taken her all around the world, Phillips remains equally connected to her two very different backgrounds: the North America of her heritage, and the China of her childhood. “There are some things I do that are ‘Chinese,’ and some things that are ‘Canadian,’” she muses. “For example, in my head I still count in Mandarin, because I learned addition and multiplication in that language.” She’s continued to speak Mandarin at U of T, and has been active as a member of the school’s Mandarin Debate Club.

In the minds of many, the Rhodes remains the world’s most prestigious academic scholarship. It is awarded to 89 undergraduates around the world each year, from whom only 11 Canadians make the cut. Historically, recipients from University College have gone on to stellar careers: they include former U of T president David Naylor (1974 UC), and former Ontario premier Bob Rae (BA 1969 UC). Along with other more recent UC students who’ve been awarded the Rhodes – such as drug safety advocate Navindra Persaud (BSc 2002 UC), as well as professor, lawyer, and activist Tashi Rabgey (BA 1992 UC) – Phillips can truly be said to be making the world a better place.

Her love of unspoiled habitats extends to Canada’s great outdoors, which she looked forward to visiting each summer as a child. “But when I started university, I’d never been camping,” she says, rhapsodizing about her new favourite pastime. “It’s definitely not a very big thing in China.”

She quickly took to it, and was soon leading outdoor camping and hiking expeditions on behalf of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award club. The international skill-building organization encourages members to meet a series of challenges in the areas of community service and recreation, for which they earn medals; Phillips is now the U of T chapter president. “It’s really exciting to take people camping for the first time,” she says.

Though she ultimately plans to pursue a doctorate in her field, the exact nature of Phillips’ work at Oxford remains to be seen (dependent as it is on who her supervisor will be). But another sojourn in Antarctica remains her steadfast goal. Where others might be intimidated by the prospect of its sprawling tracts of unpopulated snow and ice, Phillips sees only a magnificent challenge. 

“It’s one of the last places that remains relatively untouched…. It’s what our planet might look like if humans didn’t develop everywhere, and I think we should work to preserve that,” she says. “I’m extremely honoured to have received the Rhodes, and grateful for the opportunity to raise awareness for the importance of biodiversity.”