Tuesday, May 24, 2005 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Joanna McNeil, a Grade 11 student at Richmond Academy in Louisdale, won honours at the national Aventis Biotech Challenge.

Louisdale student wins with microbes
Project looked for Sydney tar ponds cleanup clues

By MARY ELLEN MacINTYRE / Truro Bureau

RED ISLANDS - Joanna McNeil has a curious, scientific mind, and the 17-year-old is not afraid to use it.

"There is so much to explore in the world of science, and I enjoy learning," said the Grade 11 student.

Joanna, who attends Richmond Academy in Louisdale, recently won fourth-place honours in the national Aventis Biotech Challenge for her project, one of 13 from across the country featuring cutting-edge biotech research ideas.

"I won the provincial challenge, and then at the national challenge earlier this month, there was a video conference, and the announcement was made of the winners at that time," she said.

The judges are members of the National Research Council of Canada.

Joanna's project dealt with the search for clues in the cleanup of the Sydney tar ponds through microbial life.

"I wanted to gauge the activity levels in the north and south ponds against each other and against other sites around Cape Breton," she explained.

Although she believes bioremediation could work at the infamously polluted tar ponds and coke oven site, Joanna said she concluded there is a need for more research.

"I had two mentors from Cape Breton University who helped me with research and some experimenting. And I was able to use the microbiology lab at the university," she said.

"Ironically, bioremediation is already taking place at the tar ponds because the microbes are surviving and thriving and helping to break down the pollutants.

"Interestingly, there was a stark contrast between the north pond and the south pond," she said.

"Although there has to be microbes in any body of water, nothing showed up in the south pond samples. But in the north pond, there were almost as much activity as there was in our control samples," Joanna said.

While most people are surprised to hear fish can be found in the tar ponds, she suggests there is plenty of life there.

"However, there has to be a reason why our south pond sample found no microbes, and there could be a number of factors," she said.

"The difference could be that the north pond is open to Sydney Harbour, and in the south pond, the water was stagnant. As well, it is generally known to be more polluted." The results may have also been a fluke.

"The absence of microbes in the south pond is interesting but not alarming and it does make me want to further explore the possibilities," she said.

Since her samples were taken in January, Joanna said, she will take more samples in the summer to see if there is a seasonal difference.

"I'll enter the challenge next year with a new set of samples and compare the samples to each other and maybe mix the samples and check for pH levels and salt concentration," she said.

After she graduates next year, she plans to enrol in the bachelor of science program at Halifax's Dalhousie University.

"Ultimately, I hope to study medicine and become an opthalmologist or a researcher. There is a lot to consider."