Grad student brings science to the citizens

By Costa Maragos Posted: May 19, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Meet some of the “citizen scientists” visiting the lab on campus where  water samples from across Canada will be analyzed. (l-r) Melody Chen, Victoria; Heather Haig, PhD candidate in Biology; Janani Anandan and Ayana Nanthakumar who are both from Mississauga, Ont.
Meet some of the “citizen scientists” visiting the lab on campus where water samples from across Canada will be analyzed. (l-r) Melody Chen, Victoria; Heather Haig, PhD candidate in Biology; Janani Anandan and Ayana Nanthakumar who are both from Mississauga, Ont. Photo courtesy of External Relations

Heather Haig knows the value of collaborative research.

In her case, it involves hundreds of high school science students from across Canada who are assisting Haig with her water research.

Heather, a PhD candidate in biology, asked students attending the Canada-Wide Science Fair at the U of R to bring a sample of their tap water with them.

She even sent them the vials to make it easier.

The goal is to map out water isotopes from across the country to study how humans affect hydrological systems.

“My first goal was to introduce these students to citizen science. I wanted to show them that quality samples can be collected by members of the public,” says Haig, who earned her master of science at Queen’s University. “A secondary goal was to allow students to watch the scientific process in action.”

Heather Haig Water Research
Heather Haig collecting sediment cores from Wakaw lake, SK. Photo courtesy of Lushani Nanayakkara

The students responded in a big way.

Haig received more than 100 vials of water to date from across Canada including Whitehorse, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Gatineau, and St. John’s.

The project is being guided by the U of R's Dr. Gavin Simpson, Quantitative Environmental Scientist at the Institute of Environmental Change and Society, who will help analyze the data.

The results will be published in an open access journal.

“Water availability is something that I am very passionate about so if I can even get one student to think more critically about where their tap water comes from, I have achieved my goal. Also getting data on anything at the national scale is a difficult challenge, so I am very happy to have this opportunity to help create a national database,” says Haig, who is working under the supervision of Dr. Peter Leavitt, professor in the Department of Biology.

This is a hands-on research project.

The “citizen scientists” are invited to help with writing the paper, which will be made available to them as a Google document.

“This way the students can contribute as collaborators. I hope this will help make the process of writing a scientific paper more transparent,” says Haig.

This project was inspired by a paper written in the U.S. in 2007 that published maps of tap water isotopes from across the continental US.

Support for this study was provided by the Institute of Environmental Change and Society, the Faculty of Science, and the Vice-President (Research).  

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