Kirsty Duncan, federal minister of science and sport, lef, watches as Girl Guide Pathfinders Josie Zemanek (middle) and Naomi Schoeck (right), use the drybox in a UVic lab. Travis Paterson/News Staff

Researcher focused on simple way to test drinking water

Federal money helps two research labs starting at UVic

Josie Zemanek and Naomi Schoeck caught the attention of Kirsty Duncan, federal minister of science and sport on Wednesday, as they navigated their miniature remote operated vehicles in a tub full of about 60 litres of water.

The minister was at UVic’s Bob Wright Centre to announce $355,000 in funding towards a pair of UVic initiatives, part of Duncan’s tour to promote an unprecedented $42 million investment in university research through the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Duncan even tried to control one of the ROVs, though it proved a lot harder than it looked. The duo of Girl Guide Pathfinders built the ROVs using SeaPerch.org’s open technology, with the support of the Ocean Networks Canada. It was a fitting demonstration having two young women, aged 12 and 14, showing a passion in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The $355,000 investment is split between another pair of young women who are starting research labs at UVic. Civil engineer Heather Buckley receives $135,000 going towards the development of a test strip that will recognize harmful toxins in drinking water, designed for people in mining-impacted communities. Leigh Anne Swayne, a cell microbiologist, will receive $220,000 towards toward the $550,000 upgrade of her lab’s confocal microscope for brain research.

“We’re at the beginning of the process,” Buckley said. “There are field technologies that exist right now but they tend to be very complicated, with lots of pipetting and agents needed that you can run out of in the field… This allows an ordinary person to test water.”

The goal is to identify harmful byproducts of mining such as arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium and lead and lead to the development of a method of extracting valuable metals from mine tailings.

“The problem of drinking water contamination in mining-impacted communities is one of chronic, long-term illnesses, and I am committed to making low-cost test-strip technologies that are available anywhere in the world where contamination of the water system due to mining is a concern.”

For Swayne’s research team, the powerful confocal microscope can observe cellular processes as they occur as part of their work to understand neuron changes related to neuro-developmental conditions such as autism.

“It also allows us to attract the top researching talent in the country to come and work in our lab,” Swayne said.

The microscope upgrade will add function and higher resolution to “reveal new things that we don’t yet know to look for” she said, “kind of like getting glasses that suddenly make what you’re looking at so much clearer.”

reporter@saanichnews.com

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