Water centre offers high-tech toolbox for scholars

As the University of Lethbridge continues to gain momentum as a leader in water research, it is achieving a critical mass of outstanding scholars.

Dr. Sarah Boon, who came to the U of L a year-and-a-half ago, is one of the University's newest researchers. She's also part of a diverse group of scholars conducting research at the new Alberta Water and Environmental Science Building (AWESB). Focusing on mountain hydrology, Boon studies snow melt and glacial melt and how they contribute to runoff in mountain systems.

"Right now, my specific research is looking at forest disturbance, like pine beetle or wildfires, and how that changes snow processes in alpine watersheds," says Boon. She's also exploring how these changes affect the timing and magnitude of runoff from the watersheds into downstream systems.

Boon says the new AWESB offers researchers greater opportunities to collaborate.

"I think that's what's going to bring us forward as a place of international excellence, where there's a lot of good research taking place."

The AWESB offers a toolbox to help researchers continue to excel in the field of water research, says Vice-President (Research) Dr. Dennis Fitzpatrick.

"In many ways, it's more than just a building. It's a repository of people and tools that are going to produce profound research," he says.

The $27-million centre is a partnership between the U of L and seven provincial and federal research partners, including Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Health Canada and Alberta Environment.

The 5,500 sq. m. facility opened on Nov. 13, 2008, and it will initially house 20 researchers and up to 150 supporting technicians, graduate students and doctoral candidates from the departments of biological sciences, geography and physics and astronomy. Research at the centre revolves around these key areas: social policy (including how the government is legislating water use); ecology (the relationship of water to flora and fauna); toxicology (the effects of chemical pollutants to the health of water supplies); environmental impacts (including how agriculture and industry impact water); and water-climate interactions (for instance, how rising global temperatures affect water systems).

The AWESB contains many state-of-the-art technologies, offering researchers the chance to expand the breadth and depth of their work.

"The tools you have access to affect the questions you can answer," Fitzpatrick explains, adding that it's rare for a university to possess so many new technologies at once.
"You can usually be up-to-date in one thing – but we're up-to-date on a whole host of tools that will help us answer more questions."

Other significant acquisitions include earth-imaging tools (for geomatics research) and instruments for stable isotope analysis as well as environmental monitoring (a significant acquisition for researchers like Dr. Christopher Hugenholtz and Dr. Mathew Letts).

The basement of the building is home to the Aquatic Research Facility, housing specialized tanks for fish and aquatic organisms, in which environmental conditions can be manipulated. Researchers like Dr. Alice Hontela, who studies water toxicology, use the facility to study responses to environmental stressors like chemical pollutants or rising temperatures.

The facility isn't just a benefit to established scientists. The AWESB will also incubate developing talent, like PhD candidate Lana Miller, who is studying the health of Alberta's lakes and rivers. She is one of more than 100 graduate students who will benefit from both the new infrastructure and the outstanding researchers that the centre is attracting.

"Researchers want to go to places where there's research actually going on," Fitzpatrick says.

For many researchers – including Boon, who's fieldwork often takes her to the Crowsnest Pass – the University is uniquely situated within the 'living laboratory' that is southern Alberta.

"These things all come together and make the University of Lethbridge a very attractive place to do research," Fitzpatrick says.