Making a difference in the environment

- July 16, 2015

Emily Merks is studying how abnormal and toxic blue-green algal blooms are affecting Colchester County's Mattatall Lake. (Nick Pearce photo)
Emily Merks is studying how abnormal and toxic blue-green algal blooms are affecting Colchester County's Mattatall Lake. (Nick Pearce photo)

Emily Merks always knew she wanted to be a mechanical engineer.

“I am fascinated with science and math related topics so becoming an engineer seemed to be the best option for me,” she explains.

Growing up on a poultry farm in Grand Pre of the Annapolis Valley, NS, Emily came to Dal's Faculty of Agriculture because of the good things she had heard about the campus — in her case, she was particularly drawn to what she heard about the professors, class sizes and the opportunity to play sports.

“I’ve heard so many positive things about the atmosphere and people here on campus,” Emily says. “Everyone I knew who had come to the AC kept telling me how nice the faculty, staff and students are.”

Not only does Emily enjoy her program, she’s excelling at it. After completing her first year in engineering, Emily was awarded an Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) from NSERC, allowing her to work with researchers over the summer and gain experience in their area of study.

“It’s a dream come true to already be working in the field after completing only the first year of my diploma program," says Emily. "This award has provided me with an opportunity to study a growing worldwide problem.”

Research in "blooms"

This summer, Emily is working alongside Tri Nguyen-Quang and his team of researchers in the Biofluids and Biosystems Modeling Lab (BBML). They are researching the possible causes of abnormal and toxic blue-green algal blooms in Mattatall Lake.

“I am focusing on the land use within the watershed to try and make links to it and various chemical patterns in and around the lake,” she explains.

Emily explains that algal blooms are a rapidly growing problem, not only in Nova Scotia but worldwide. These large accumulations of algae cells typically occur in freshwater and marine environments. The blooms are becoming more and more frequent and threaten safe drinking water supplies.

“Unfortunately, Nova Scotia has little research being done on this problem compared to other provinces,” Emily says. “An abundance of specific nutrients, like phosphorous, is considered to be a major contributing factor to the occurrence of algal blooms. This summer, I want to help locate and address the major contributing sources of nutrients to Mattatall Lake.”

Looking ahead

Through her research at BBML, together with her colleagues, Emily hopes to find what is causing the occurrence of algal blooms in Mattatall Lake. They then want to propose a solution that will help the residents of Mattatall Lake prevent future algal blooms. On a personal level, she would like to sharpen her sample taking and analysis skills.

Emily is set to graduate next spring from the engineering diploma program, after which she plans to move on to Dalhousie’s Halifax campuses to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Engineering. She'd eventually like to be involved in the research and design of renewable energy systems or some other project focused on improving the natural environment.

Emily’s passion and determination for engineering and the environment has lead her on a successful path so far — and her journey has only just begun.


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