Better infrastructure, better results

Better infrastructure, better results

September 28, 2010
Students dissect fish in preparation for analysis
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Students dissect fish in preparation for analysis at the Canadian Rivers Institute at the University of New Brunswick.
Karen Gormley

In 2001, when the Canadian Rivers Institute (CRI) opened on the campus of the University of New Brunswick (UNB), CRI researchers knew where many of its students would have to go to conduct experiments and analyze their findings — elsewhere.

While the CRI was theoretically a 21st-century effort to measure the effects of pollutants on fish and other marine life and to explore ways to mitigate those effects, absolutely none of its technology was state of the art. “Things were very ad hoc,” recalls Kelly Munkittrick, who has been associate director of the institute since its founding.

To measure how pollutants move through a river system, for example, scientists would set up aquariums in classrooms during the summer, when students were not around. They had to change the water every day after taking samples, which didn’t permit a true simulation of the continuous flow of pollutants through a river system. And when results came in, the CRI generally wasn’t equipped to analyze them and often had to send samples to other laboratories.

Fast-forward to 2010.

Eighty-eight percent of CRI technology is now state of the art. This is highlighted by the institute’s world-renowned SINLAB, which uses stable isotopes to measure the progression of pollutants through plants and animals in a river’s ecosystem. The technological leap forward has produced a tidal shift in the general flow of people and findings. Researchers are coming to UNB — not leaving.

Researchers and students from Chile, Brazil and Uruguay are now collaborating with the CRI. Companies in these countries are constructing pulp mills that generate up to six times as much pulp as the average mill in Canada. While these mills are often equipped with up-to-date water-purification technologies, South American university researchers don’t have the expertise and equipment to test whether these systems are, in fact, preventing pollution.

The CRI helped the researchers determine that their modern technologies don’t always eliminate the toxicity of mill emissions and that modern effluent can still contribute to a major pulp mill pollution concern — the feminization of male fish.

“That’s a finding a makeshift aquarium with a summer shelf life could never have uncovered,” says Munkittrick. But with its technological muscle, today’s CRI can.