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Four research projects in Halifax worth knowing about 

From baby eels to methane leaks in old mines, these are just some of the areas of study being investigated by Halifax’s academic all-stars.

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Jessica Bennett, Masters of engineering, Dalhousie University
Feminizing baby eels in farms in order to raise them locally and sell to global markets
Local aquaculture research company NovaEel is teaming up with researchers at the Dalhousie Medical School to create "a competitive eel industry that is safe, sustainable and beneficial to the economy," according to Jessica Bennett, a part-time NovaEel employee and current Masters of engineering student at Dal.

The researchers have developed a new method of ensuring that farmed baby eels develop into females. These ambisex creatures typically develop into males while in farmed conditions, but females are significantly larger in mass than their male counterparts and more attractive from a business standpoint.

Since breeding eels in captivity has never been achieved, Bennett and her colleagues were interested in finding a way to ensure that the baby eels develop into females even while raised in farms. To do this, they add a form of estrogen—the female sex hormone—known as estradiol into the eels' food, which results in the production of "up to 100 percent female eels in pilot-scale farming," according to Bennett.

"The use of this naturally occurring estrogen is also safe from a health point of view—because estradiol in eel tissue returns to natural levels within days, so there is nothing added and no risk to humans," Bennett says.

The goal is to have local eel farms producing female eels ready to meet the growing international demand, which has been heightened due to overfishing and the subsequent declining eel populations in Asia.


Jillian Ruhl, applied human nutrition graduate, Mount Saint Vincent University
First university-based honey beehive in Halifax for students in nutrition and biology
"Having studied nutrition in university, I was instantly intrigued by the necessity of bees...for the sustainability of our food system and humans' food security," says Jillian Ruhl, a part-time professor and applied human nutrition graduate from Mount Saint Vincent University who was instrumental in bringing Halifax's first university-based honeybee hive to the Mount.

"Setting up a beehive to go alongside the [university's community] garden's workshops seemed like a perfect supplement to the environmental sustainability initiatives taking place on campus," she says.

The hive is currently being used as a community engagement piece, but Ruhl says it is available to faculty of all departments for research going forward.

"I will be using the beehive for lab classes, such as one called Ecological Perspectives of Food, [and] there are definitely other learning opportunities for biology classes, too," she says.

A workshop on Bee Democracy should also be of particular interest for business administration students, as it allows them to observe the bees' organizational behaviour as a functioning colony, taking notes on their democratic order.

While Ruhl is looking forward to integrating the bees into her lab classes in the fall, she is most excited about giving more people the chance to interact with and study the bees in their hive. She maintains that the community beehive is a means of "showing the public that honey bees are docile creatures and truly nothing to be afraid about!"


Clarissa Sit, chemical biologist, Saint Mary's University
Trying to discover new antibiotics from natural sources to help combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria, viruses and other micro-organisms
One of the world's most urgent problems threatening the future face of human health is the fact that people are becoming resistant to antibiotics and contracting untreatable "superbugs."

"We're super-interested in looking for new ways to treat these infections, and new antibiotics to target these resisting bacteria," says Clarissa Sit, a chemical biologist at Saint Mary's University who was recently awarded more than $170,000 in federal funding for her research. She and her team are looking to discover new kinds of antibiotics from natural "creative sources in the environment."

One of their case studies will be honey bees, since they are social insects who coexist in large colonies and at the same time, manage to fight off any potential incoming infections.

"We're trying to see if there are sort of healthy bacteria that are already associated with bees that might help them defend and protect their colonies," Sit says. "At the same time, while we're looking at that, maybe we'll find some new antibiotics that will be useful for humans as well."

In addition to the bees, the team will be analyzing samples from little brown bats in North America, whose population has nearly been eradicated due to the spreading of a deadly fungal infection known as "white nose syndrome." Large brown bats in Europe are resistant to this type of infection, says Sit, "so we're trying to figure out why, and whether we can find a bacterial strain that will help protect these bats from succumbing to this fungal infection, and hopefully find the antibiotics at the same time."


Grant Wach, geology professor, Dalhousie University
Monitoring emission levels coming from old mining sites and oil fields in the Maritimes for better methane management policies
A research initiative dedicated to investigating the amount of methane coming from old coal mines and oil field sites across the Maritimes has recently been given $482,000 in federal government funding. Awarded by Natural Resources Canada's Energy Innovation Program, one of the underlying aims of the project is to help identify new ways of reducing the country's overall greenhouse gas ewmissions to help meet its 2030 targets, as outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Currently, there is no scientific data regarding potential emissions from these kinds of sites, so first researchers will have to find them. Grant Wach, a geology professor at Dalhousie, is leading a team involved in that work. The group will collaborate with researchers from other universities to analyze and document any methane leakages in the environment.

"Until we understand the scale of the problem it's hard to come up with a regulatory framework and scope to understand what we need to do to address issues that affect climate change," Wach says, adding that methane emissions are even more troublesome for the atmosphere than carbon dioxide emissions.

Once the data is recorded, experts can create effective policies that allow for better overall methane management.

"This is something Canada can tackle and help solve,' he says, "which is really commendable."


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