“exploring new techniques that will aid in understanding the resilience of lakes to disturbance from contaminants….”

November 18, 2019

James M Flaherty Visiting Professorship 2018/19 Visit Report

Name:                                Dr Helen Roe

Home University:        Queen’s University Belfast

University visited:
Global Water Institute (GWI), Carleton University, Ottawa and University of New Brunswick

Dates of Visit:                June-September 2019

Field of Study:               Environment

Purpose of Visit:
To explore new techniques that will aid in understanding the resilience of lakes to disturbance from contaminants, particularly nutrients, and to develop ways of integrating biomonitoring approaches with ecosystem modelling, palaeoecological and other techniques with researchers from the GWI, Ottawa and University of New Brunswick. A further aim was to strengthen educational links between Queen’s University Belfast and Carleton University.

Visit Details:
Research and Development:

My ten-week visit provided a great opportunity to work with teams of researchers from three Canadian universities (Carleton, New Brunswick, Ottawa) and government agencies (Canadian Museum of Nature, Canadian Rivers Institute), to discuss new analytical techniques that will have application to ongoing projects being undertaken in Queen’s, Ireland and further afield:

  • Applications of flow cytometer technologies in water quality monitoring (collaborators: Paul Hamilton, Canadian Museum of Nature, Tim Patterson and MSc candidate Riley Steele, Carleton). Flow cytometry, imaging and particle recognition approaches have significant potential in environmental monitoring, as siliceous algae and other microfossils preserved in lake sediments have distinct morphologies which are well suited to automated analysis. Dr Hamilton and colleagues are developing these techniques to rapidly characterize and count Arcellinida, an important group of shelled protozoans, which are sensitive to nutrient loading. We discussed analytical approaches and I briefed the researchers on the results of a complimentary study of microfossil morphometrics recently undertaken on samples from eutrophic lakes in Co. Fermanagh.
  • Improved characterisation of lake biota and food web responses to environmental stressors using eDNA analysis of sediment-water interface samples (collaborators: David Singer (Carleton); Donald Baird, Wendy Monk and Zacchaeus Compson, UNB). Discussions focussed on sampling protocols, and the applications of large multi-proxy datasets that combine geochemical data, conventional taxonomic monitoring and eDNA approaches to examine lake community responses to stressors (e.g. flooding, contaminants). I gained first-hand experience of sample collection for eDNA analysis during fieldwork in New Brunswick.  Datasets of lake samples were identified in Canada that will form the focus of a future collaborative PhD studentship application.
  • High resolution analysis of lake sediment cores using freeze coring and sledge microtome technologies. Identification of key transitions (or ‘tipping points’) in lake sediment records is important for understanding the resilience of lakes to disturbance (e.g. from agricultural contaminants). Ultra-high resolution (1 mm-scale) sampling approaches can help facilitate the analysis of these transitions. I learnt about these techniques, which are routinely used by the Carleton Climate and Environmental Research Group, including the applications of a custom-developed freeze-core sledge microtome, and hope to apply similar approaches to examine Irish lake sediment records.
    • Tracking the response of cyanobacteria and algal blooms in lake sediments via geochemical and molecular techniques (with David McMullin and others, Carleton). These techniques have great potential for understanding the complex causes and impacts of cyanobacteria blooms in lakes. In addition to discussing methodologies, we considered potential field sites that would be suitable to develop the approaches in Canada and Ireland.
    • Application of integrated Itrax, GIS and grain-size approaches to model metal distribution in lakes and to determine optimal sites for lake coring (with Veronica Mazzella, Braden Gregory, Tim Patterson and others from GWI). These approaches have wide applications for the analysis of contaminants in wetland settings. The Itrax methodologies will be discussed with colleagues in the Itrax Sediment Laboratory, UCD.

Lectures, seminars, talks, events:

I delivered my James M. Flaherty Lecture at the Global Water Institute (‘Applications of Palaeolimnology for Understanding Long-term Water Quality Change in Lakes’) on 19th August 2019 (Fig. 1) and two further seminars on 12th and 17th September in Carleton’s Department of Earth Sciences and the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies.

Fig 1:  Dr Helen Roe (far right) with Professor Banu Ormeci, Director of the Global Water Institute, and Professor Larry Kostiuk, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Design, Carleton University.

In addition to numerous field visits and lake sampling, I ran lab and field training sessions for Carleton undergraduates in July and August. I gained further insights into ongoing research in the GWI by participating in the Examination Committees for two MSc students on 26th August and 11th September. Amongst the activities in UNB, I attended a really enjoyable plant identification workshop run by local volunteers and retired scientists (Fig 2).

Fig 2: Discussing aquatic plant taxonomy at UNB Fredericton.

Contacts made:

I interacted with a large group of researchers with wide-ranging research interests: Tim Patterson, Jesse Vermaire, Andrew Macumber, Braden Gregory, Nawaf Nasser (palaeolimnological research and sampling protocols), David Singer (molecular ecology); David Miller (management of lake toxins, environmental policy), Carley Crann (geochronology), David McMullin (biogeochemistry; cyanotoxin detection); Paul Hamilton (diatom ecology; automatic analysis of microfossils); Donald Baird, Wendy Monk, (wetland remediation and monitoring using molecular data and modelling approaches), Les Cywnar (palaeolimnology) (shown in Fig. 3 at UNB), Zacchaeus Compson (food web modelling in lakes), Kristie Heard, Gart Bishop, Rick Fournier and Meghann Bruce (aquatic plant taxonomy); Banu Ormeci (Director, GWI, Carleton).

Fig 3: Visit to University of New Brunswick, Fredericton. Dr Helen Roe (centre) with Professor Les Cwynar and Dr Wendy Monk, UNB Department of Biology.

Other benefits:

The visit provided an excellent opportunity to promote a new undergraduate exchange agreement which has recently been signed between Carleton University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, and the School of Natural and Environment, Queen’s Belfast. I met with many Carleton Geography colleagues and staff from the Carleton International Student Services Office (ISSO) to discuss this, as well as two Queen’s students participating in the exchange this year (Fig. 4). I ran a workshop for Carleton Geography students to promote the Canada-Ireland student exchange opportunities, and spoke during some classes to further encourage students to check out the scheme.

Fig 4: Dr Helen Roe (far right) with QUB students Finola Bradley and Natasha Campbell who are studying in Carleton University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies in 2019-20.


Future Continuing Collaboration:

Ongoing collaborative research is planned to develop the projects described above. Collaborative outputs are in preparation in relation to the automated flow cytometer work and Itrax-GIS-based study with Carleton colleagues. A PhD studentship application (for a student to study at QUB) and a research funding application will be developed with Canadian collaborators for the cyanotoxin project.  Further collaboration is planned in relation to the applications of eDNA for biomonitoring and understanding lake community responses to environmental stressors.


I express my sincere thanks to the Ireland Canada University Foundation for the rich variety of opportunities, training, and many stimulating discussions that arose from the visit, and the new contacts made.


Helen Roe
October 2019