Students taking tar ponds project to national science fair

By Chris Shannon
Cape Breton Post
Sat., April 8, 2006

Sydney - Studying the effects the Sydney tar ponds has on fish and plant life has propelled two Cape Breton high school students to the national science fair in Saguenay, Que. next month.

Joanna McNeil, a senior at Richmond Academy in Louisdale, and Sheralynne Deveaux, a Grade 11 student at Riverview Rural High School, won the right to represent their respective school boards at the Canada Wide Science Fair.

For Deveaux, 17, it'll be her third consecutive year attending the national competition. Last year in Vancouver she placed fourth, a mark she hopes to better this time.

One of the organisms she studied closely was the Fundulus Heteroclitius, the dominant prey fish found in the tar ponds.

"I thought that was interesting because if we can look at how the tar ponds affected wildlife, we can start to make assumptions and predictions as to how it would affect humans or even other aquatic animals," Deveaux said.

With the assistance of Dr. Martha Jones, an assistant professor of biology at Cape Breton University, Deveaux gained access to tar ponds fish and compared them with minnows in River Ryan.

Her project involved precise measurements of fish to see how much an eye or a fin on one side differed in size from those on the other. Side-to-side differences can be a sign of environmental stress.

In her tests, she only discovered significant differences in eye diameter. Deveaux plans to increase her sample size for the national science fair to prove or disprove the effects the tar ponds contaminants have on fish.

In her last year in high school, McNeil will attend the national competition for the first time.

"I've always wanted to go to the nationals," said the 18-year-old.

"To get to go in my senior year is pretty exciting."

Her project on the microbial activity in the tar ponds took nine of 11 prizes in her division at the Strait Regional Science Fair.

"In January (of 2005) the south pond (of the tar ponds) didn't show any activity whatsoever, where the north pond was almost as abundant as the controlled samples from streams around my house and school," McNeil said.

"I went back in July, September and October, to see whether the results would be parallel during the warmer months.

"I saw that as the season progressed and the temperature declined, so did the activity levels in both of the ponds, while the control sample remained fairly consistent in terms of activity year-round."

McNeil also won one of 15 Toyota Earth Day scholarships valued at $5,000. The award recognized "demonstrated excellence in environmental community service, academic achievements, and extracurricular activities."

The Canada Wide Science Fair, sponsored by the Youth Science Foundation Canada, will take place from May 13-21.