Mercury research, croissants, and labour reform strikes in France

by Kristie, David

When undergraduate students profess an interest in conducting research, more senior students often take great delight in highlighting some of the difficulties of research; hard to satisfy supervisors, experiments that won’t work, unexpected setbacks, and endless revisions of reports and theses. But an undeniable reward for perseverance and hard work is the opportunity to see your name in print and communicating your hard won new knowledge to other like-minded students and scientists via publications and conferences. Specialized national and international conferences provide a collaborative environment where experts and students alike come together to share research findings, make new contacts, and possibly enjoy a brew (or wine in this case).

Students in Dr Nelson O’Driscoll’s Environmental Biogeochemistry Lab (which has a focus on mercury) are fortunate in that Dr O'Driscoll is a firm believer in sending students to Canadian, and even the occasional international conference to communicate their findings. Dr O’Driscoll’s research focuses on the transformation and accumulation of mercury species in the environment, and is considered to be one of the foremost mercury labs in Canada. Dr O’Driscoll’s lab is part of the Centre for Analytical Research in the Environment (CARE) which is located in the research wing of the KC Irving Environmental Science Centre.

Recently two of Dr O'Driscoll's graduate students had the opportunity to present their research at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) Europe 26th Annual Meeting in Nantes, France (May 22-26, 2016).  While France was in the midst of public sector service strikes that disrupted train travel and pretty much any public service run by unions, the strikes did not detract from the beauty of the countryside, the fabulous food, or the quality of French wine, and of course, the learning and networking value of the conference itself. 

Jocelyn Kickbush, an MSc student and Arthur Irving Scholar presented her work on the Influence of Avian Biovectors on Mercury Speciation in a Coastal Wetland. While wetlands are known as hotspots for transforming mercury into its most toxic and bioavailable form (methylmercury), influences on this transformation in wetlands is not well understood. By studying a coastal wetland on Brier Island, Nova Scotia, which has been colonized by ~6000 seagulls, not only is the role of seagulls as biovectors examined, but also the indirect influence their nutrient input – from sources such as guano, carcasses, and diet - have on mercury’s transformation into methylmercury.

Sara Klapstein gave a platform presentation entitled Linking variation in natural solar radiation with seasonal methylmercury dynamics in freshwater lake systems and a poster entitled Dissolved organic matter controls mercury photoreactions in freshwater lakes. This combination of work is based on 3 years of canoeing (and research) in Kejimkujik National Park. Her research focuses on photoreactions between methylmercury, (the toxic form of mercury we ingest through food, primarily fish) and carbon in freshwater lakes.  Sara is a PhD candidate from Memorial University of Newfoundland but she spends the majority of her time here at Acadia, working with Dr O'Driscoll who is her co-advisor.

Sara also recently attended the Canadian Society for Chemistry 99th Conference and Exhibition in Halifax where she won the Environment Division Oral Presentation Award for her presentation: Mercury photoreactions in freshwater lakes are controlled by dissolved organic matter in a Chemical Cycling in Natural Environments session. This diverse session was composed of scientists and students from Eastern Canada and highlighted some of the major biogeochemistry questions facing the many different ecotypes across Canada.

Undergraduate researchers in Dr O’Driscoll’s lab Include Honours student Cardy Saunders (Biol ‘17), who is collecting lichens from across Nova Scotia to analyze for mercury content, and Arthur Irving Scholar Rachel Clarke (ENVS ‘18), who is learning the ropes and helping out with various projects. Both are dreaming of attending their first international conference.

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