2022 Internship Projects


Laser-based probes for in-field soil analysis

Dr. Amina Hussein, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Measurements of moisture, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus and particle composition to make informed decisions and increase productivity of their farm. However, detailed soil analysis typically takes place in labs, which is costly and time consuming. My research team is developing a portable Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) device for in-situ analysis of agricultural soil. The project involves working with laser systems on the University of Alberta campus to optimize experimental protocols for LIBS of soils, and the subsequent analysis of these emissions.

Development of next generation anaerobic digestion system

Dr. Bipro Dhar, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

The overall goal of this project is to develop next-generation anaerobic digestion (AD) systems that will provide enhanced bio-methane recovery from organic waste, such as food waste, yard waste, through improved process kinetics and stability. This project will focus on developing high-rate AD systems via the amendment of additive materials, thereby promoting a resilient and kinetically efficient microbiome for faster bioconversion of organic waste.

Engineered bacteria for tailing pond applications

Dr. Larry Unsworth, Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering

The production of tailings is an unavoidable consequence of the bitumen mining process used in the Canadian oil sands industry. Current treatment strategies are unable to cause rapid settling or the effective dewatering of mature fine tailings. As greater quantities of tailings are produced the need for a complete, environmentally-friendly and economically viable treatment becomes more urgent. It is proposed herein, that bacteria – already native to tailings ponds – will be engineered to actively cause settling and dewatering of tailings.

Clean Energy Transitions for Remote Communities

Dr. Petr Musilek, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

This project focuses on clean energy transition and how it can help remote Indigenous communities to move away from the use of fossil fuels. This, in turn, will have a positive impact on the environment, economy and health of the communities. It will help the participating student to get familiar with the knowledge and skills required to design, implement, operate and maintain clean energy systems that use renewable energy resources.

How does aging and weathering impact plastic’s ability to be recycled?

Jeffery Farner, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

This project will investigate our ability to recycle weathered and aged plastics. We will use high density polyethylene (HDPE), one of the most widely used packaging materials and one of the most commonly found plastics in the environment. Plastic particles will be exposed to multiple cycles of weathering and recycling. Weathering will be performed by UV light, and both the chemical and mechanical properties of the polymer will be analyzed at each cycle. In doing so, we will improve our understanding of how the chemical changes due to weathering impact the physical properties of the plastics and gain insight into if and when plastics are “too far gone” to be recycled.


Improving monitoring tools to detect mountain pine beetle at low densities in novel habitats: incorporating host-tree stress and fungal volatiles in beetle attraction

Dr. Nadir Erbilgin, Department of Renewable Resources

Mountain pine beetle is a serious pest of pines in western North America. During outbreaks, these beetles kill millions of pine trees. Beetles rely on available chemical cues such as those emitted from host trees. Currently we lack effective tools to detect these beetles particularly at low population densities. My group has been involved in development of such tools to detect and monitor activities of mountain pine beetles at low population densities. Since beetle attacks are limited to stressed trees when their population densities are low, I hypothesize that volatiles emitted from stressed or downed trees play critical roles in host colonization by beetles at low densities. In this project, students will be involved in collecting volatile organic compounds from stressed trees. 

Assessing the influence of beaver dams on downstream methylmercury delivery in the Dehcho, Northwest Territories

David Olefeldt, Department of Renewable Resources 

Beavers are common in the Dehcho region of the Northwest Territories (NT), and have likely increased in numbers following reduced trapping and harvesting pressure. Beaver dams have many ecologically beneficial functions, but can also have detrimental effects including the potential for increased production and downstream delivery of the neurotoxin methylmercury. Methylmercury bioaccumulates in aquatic food-webs, and can pose health risks to northern communities that rely on fishing. In this project, the student researcher will assess the potential for beaver dams to act as hotspots for methylmercury production. The student researcher will also work to detect beaver dams from satellite imagery to assess if dam presence contributes to higher MeHg concentrations in a larger study of diverse watersheds across the Dehcho. 

Maintaining forest biodiversity through emulation of natural disturbance: comparing fire skips and retention patches

Dr. Charles Nock, Department of Renewable Resources

Forest management in Canada has evolved over time from a limited focus on timber extraction to appreciation of a much broader set of values. In recent decades, Ecosystem-Based forest Management (EBM) has emerged as a dominant paradigm at the national and international scale. Central to the concept of EBM is the goal of maintaining or enhancing ecological, economic and social values. The main approach to EBM has involved the implementation of management practices that emulate the patterns and processes of natural disturbances (e.g. wildfire), and it is hypothesized that by doing so, forest ecosystem resilience will be maintained. In this project, we will test the hypothesis that emulating natural disturbance by using harvesting practices that leave biological legacies in harvested stands minimizes influences of harvesting on forest biodiversity. To do so, we will sample and compare stands using disturbed by harvesting with those disturbed by fire, examining forest structure and biodiversity, including plants, insects and birds. The I-STEAM student will play a key role in establishing and measuring field plots in pine forests, working in a team including MSc and PhD students and a research assistant. This will provide a variety of opportunities to learn about research methods in applied forest ecology and management, including both classic forest inventory methods and vegetation sampling, as well as modern techniques based on terrestrial laser scanning and drones.

Wildflowers, Weeds, and Wild Pollinator Conservation

Dr. Carol M Frost, Department of Renewable Resources

Understanding factors affecting wild pollinator abundance and diversity in agricultural landscapes, both in crops and in remnant natural habitats, is critical to managing these landscapes for both agricultural sustainability and conservation of natural habitats. Landscape diversity and local flower abundance have been suggested to increase wild pollinator abundance, but we lack a detailed understanding of which variables are most important in Alberta landscapes. In this study we aim to determine the most important variables affecting pollinators in both crops and remnant natural areas in Aspen Parkland. We also aim to better understand the ecological role of non-native weedy plants in these landscapes. This work will help inform land use decisions, wild pollinator conservation planning, and agricultural practices. 


Untangling drivers of plant coexistence: towards a mechanistic understanding of community diversity

Dr. James Cahill, Department of Biological Sciences

Diverse plant species are able to live together, though classical ecological thinking suggests competition should prevent such coexistence. The effects of light, soil nutrients, and plant neighbours on community diversity remain unclear, requiring further investigation.The objectives of this research are to disentangle how light, nutrients, and neighbours affect coexistence and to determine if community spectral characteristics permit or prohibit plant establishment. Natural plant communities are changing, including through the introduction of new plant species. Understanding the mechanisms of these changes may help with subsequent management to maintain and preserve biodiversity.

Assessing the effects of coal mine effluent contaminants on native fish and invertebrate species of the North Saskatchewan River Watershed

Dr. Greg Goss, Department of Biological Sciences

The North Saskatchewan River provides Albertans with recreational activities such as fishing, boating, and swimming. Home to various species, such as pike, walleye, burbot, whitefish, trout, it provides great opportunities for anglers. Constituents of coal mine effluent can elicit detrimental effects on aquatic biota, where elevated levels of contaminants and sediment due to leaching from mine sites can potentially lead to extirpation events. To date, a basin-wide comprehensive risk assessment and sensitivity analysis for species in the upper North Saskatchewan River has not been conducted and the relative sensitivity of local populations of native fish species and benthic invertebrates has not been established. This project will define guidelines to allow for the maintenance of aquatic biota populations, biodiversity and ultimately ecosystem homeostasis.

Identifying factors that mediate the resiliency – susceptibility spectrum of lodgepole pine to mountain pine beetle

Dr. Janice Cook, Department of Biological Sciences

Mountain pine beetle has devastated more than 20 million hectares of mainly lodgepole pine forests in western Canada. As rights-holders of forests that are already impacted or at risk of mountain pine beetle outbreaks, First Nations and Metis peoples have a deep relationship with these forests. We are investigating how genetics influence lodgepole pine defenses and other characteristics that affect the tree’s ability to withstand mountain pine beetle outbreaks.  The project will be part of TRIA-FoR, a large-scale team project in which we are taking a multidisciplinary approach to investigate risk and resiliency in the context of mountain pine beetle-pine-climate interactions that affect MPB population dynamics and impacts on diverse communities connected to already impacted forests and forests at risk. 

Predictors of Honey Bee Colony Health

Dr. Olav Rueppell, Department of Biological Sciences

Honey bees are essential pollinators in many natural and agricultural ecosystems. Alberta is also home to a large apicultural industry for honey production. However, annual colony losses force beekeepers to import large numbers of bees from other countries and undermine the sustainability of beekeeping in Alberta. The colony losses are caused by a variety of factors that impact honey bee health, including pesticides, pathogens, parasites, poor nutrition, and climate change. In this project, we will compare the performance of two imported and one domestic stock of honey bees. Specifically, we will investigate how genomic, individual, and group traits can predict performance of these stocks in three different regions of Alberta. The ultimate goals of this project are to find predictive markers for colony performance and test the hypothesis that local stocks are better adapted to Alberta than imported ones.

Energy use and body condition of mountain pine beetles after flight in the field

Dr. Maya Evenden, Department of Biological Sciences

Spread of mountain pine beetle populations occurs as a result of both beetle dispersal and establishment of the population in the new environment. Dispersal by flight is obligatory for mountain pine beetles, as adults must leave the natal host and fly to seek new hosts for brood production. Mountain pine beetles exhibit flight polyphenisms that result in differences in dispersal across the landscape and impact subsequent range expansion. Spread measured in the field correlates with estimates of flight capacity obtained using a computer-linked flight mill assay, but it is not known how energy use during natural flight in the forest affects subsequent beetle condition which determines host colonization success.

This research will provide data to better understand the condition of beetles as it relates to dispersal across the expanded range in Alberta. Our field sampling and subsequent beetle body measurements will help us to determine if morphological measurements can correlate with dispersal phenotypes in a field setting.

Alkaline tolerance in brook stickleback collected from alkaline and non-alkaline habitats

Dr. Janice Cook, Department of Biological Sciences

Climate change and human activities are resulting in the increased salinization of inland freshwaters. Since the 1970s, the salinity, and thus alkalinity, of Buffalo Lake has increased by 15-20% and is predicted to increase further in the future. The goal of this project is to determine whether fishes residing in Buffalo Lake have the capacity to cope with further salinization of their environment, using brook stickleback (Culaea inconstans) as a representative resident species. The capacity of stickleback from Buffalo Lake to respond to increased salinity and alkalinity will be compared to a population collected from a neutral reference lake at Buck Lake. The hypothesis is that Buffalo Lake fish will have a lower metabolic rate and greater aerobic scope under alkaline conditions, relative to Buck Lake fish, in accordance with their greater alkaline tolerance.

Studying Surface Chemistry to Help Clean-Up Alberta’s Tailings Ponds

Julianne Gibbs-Davis, Department of Chemistry

Oil sands operations are a major industrial effort in Alberta with environmental consequences. In these operations, a waste material of the extraction process is the tailings. The tailings are a sludge-like mixture of residual bitumen, water, and minerals such as clay and silica and occupy large pieces of land in what are known as tailing ponds. Separating the solid and water in the tailings (a process known as dewatering) is key to making sure that the carcinogens in the tailings sludge do not leach out and contaminate nearby rivers. Unfortunately it will take decades for the minerals to spontaneously separate and settle from the water in these ponds. As such, strategies to accelerate the dewatering of the tailings are urgently required. Recently our research group has explored these chemistry principles when lime is used as the dewatering agent. The objective of this project is to extend our knowledge to other potential dewatering agents composed of magnesium and calcium salts. By using tools that give a molecular picture of the interaction between these chemicals and the minerals, we can identify new methods aimed at dewatering tailing ponds helping to protect Alberta’s rivers.

Assessment of carbon, food, and water trade-offs towards emission targets in western Canada’s endangered grasslands

Dr. Monireh Faramarzi, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Humanity faces the triple challenge of stabilizing climate, safeguarding nature, and ensuring food security. Innovative approaches for climate- and nature-friendly land management and food production systems are urgently needed. The grasslands of Canadian Prairies (GCP) are among the most critical ecosystems that provide numerous ecosystem goods and services (EG&S), including carbon sink for climate regulation, forage production for wildlife and livestock grazing, and clean water for human consumption among others. Protection and restoration of GCP must be considered in Canada’s climate change plans. Our project aims to investigate water-food-climate trade-offs across agricultural and grasslands of the Canadian Prairies and to study trade-offs between water, carbon, and food production in GCP.

Seeking Sustainable Energy Solutions: Exploring Atomic Arrangements in Next-Generation Materials using NMR

Dr. Vladimir Michaelis, Department of Chemistry

The marketplace contains a diverse ecosystem of products derived from materials science, such as scratch- and crack-resistant amorphous borosilicate glass (Gorilla glass), inorganic and organic solids that allow the conversion of sunlight directly to usable electricity (solar cells), rechargeable batteries (Tesla-Panasonic, Samsung) and biocompatible medical glass-ceramics (Stryker, medical implants). Our group specializes in understanding the underlying atomic- and molecular-level structure in solids that control the properties and ultimately the function for a range of applications within health and energy research streams. The research project will be related to energy-related materials for a sustainable future. Presently, our group specializes in solar harvesting (solar cell), energy storage (batteries) and porous frameworks (carbon capture) materials. The student will be partnered with senior research students examining these materials in efforts to better understand and improve performance. In addition, we will examine whether limitations exist using conventional technologies within the diverse geographic regions and communities that encompass Canada.

Nematodes parasites as potential biological control against slug pests in Alberta

Lien Luong, Department of Biological Sciences

Pestiferous slugs damage a range of crops in North America. Yield loss from slug damage is highly variable, but in particularly cool and wet years it can be quite severe. Available chemical control using metaldehyde achieves only 10-60% slug mortality, and even when it is widely used significant crop damage still averages 30%. Slug status as pests has been growing globally, yet there is a lack of safe and effective products on the market to manage slug populations in North America. Our research team recently discovered a nematode, P. californica, in Alberta. This nematode is a lethal parasite of slugs and has the potential to be an important part of a sustainable management program to control slug populations. The specific goals of this project are to survey and monitor population size and community structure of slugs associated with crops in Alberta, isolate and identify nematodes associated with slugs in Alberta investigate the life cycle, host range, and infectious dose of the parasitic nematode and identify field conditions that enhance the efficacy of the nematode on slugs.

Understanding the effects of hydraulic fracturing wastewater on brain development in zebrafish

Zachary Hall and Tamzin Blewett, Department of Biological Science

Hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas recovery is increasing globally, including the extraction of resources near the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples in North America. Among the environmental costs associated with this process is the production of millions of litres of untreated wastewater effluent called flowback and produced water. This wastewater is a complex chemical mixture containing trace metals, ions, and diesel range organics. During production and transport of this effluent, accidental spills into the environment occur. The goal of this project is to understand the impact of hydraulic fracturing effluent exposure on the development of a model aquatic organism, the zebrafish.  

Lichen to become a mite-y environmental investigator? Environmental monitoring of ecosystem health in Alberta with lichen and oribatid mite bioindicators

Dr. Diane Haughland and Lisa Lumley, Department of Biological Sciences, Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute 

The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute is a not-for-profit organization that tracks changes in Alberta’s wildlife and habitats across the province. This includes assessing ecosystem health through examining the diversity of lichens and soil-dwelling oribatid mites. Oribatid mites and lichens are excellent indicators of ecosystem health; they are responsive to climate and habitat alteration, with mite diversity indicative of soil health and lichens responding to air quality. Alberta is home to over 384 oribatid mites and 1,000 lichens, including species that ABMI has collected from First Nations reserves in collaboration with Indigenous communities. The goal of our project is to provide the student hands-on experience and training in environmental monitoring and mite and lichen identification. Samples are collected and shipped to the University of Alberta where they are logged, preserved and identified; assisting in these tasks will provide the student an opportunity to contribute to data on biodiversity of these taxa, data that ultimately are used to estimate the health of our shared environment over time.