Declaring a water crisis over isn’t the end of the ordeal

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Demonstrators at a 2010 Toronto rally protesting the mercury contamination of the Wabigoon-English waterway in northwestern Ontario carry long blue banners meant to represent a river. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)


Written By: Steven Liss, Ryerson University; Anna Majury, Queen’s University, Ontario, and Haley Sanderson, Queen’s University, Ontario

Water crisis is over and lead levels back to normal in Flint, read the headlines. The Michigan city has been besieged with water quality challenges for the past three years. Incidents of Legionella infections leading to 12 deaths in 2014 and 2015 further complicated matters.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, a leading water expert, declared the end of the Flint water crisis. He urged residents to continue to use filters until the infrastructure upgrades are complete, but acknowledged it would be some time before residents would trust officials as guardians of water quality.

Factors contributing to the Flint water crisis are not unique.

Inadequate and aged water infrastructure are common sources of problems. While upgrading infrastructure after a crisis is necessary, and technological advancement can overcome some water quality management challenges, those efforts are only effective if implemented consistently and maintained properly.

Underlying issues that become apparent after a crisis must also be addressed. They include public trust, accessibility, the need for environmental protections and for strong communication between officials and the communities.

Water crises have a long history

Just over 17 years ago, the tainted water crisis in Walkerton, Ont. led to 2,300 cases of gastroenteritis and seven deaths. Amid excessive rainfall, cattle manure run-off from an adjacent farm contaminated the shallow drinking water well.

The community’s prolonged exposure was attributed to a lack of training and education of key personnel, and lack of action when the test results showed fecal contamination.

Dalton McGuinty, then premier of Ontario, tours the Walkerton Clean Water Centre in this 2010 file photo. Seven people died and thousands were sickened by e. coli contamination.(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)




Similarly, in Camelford, England, a major pollution incident occurred in 1988 when 20 tons of aluminium sulfate, a toxic chemical used in water treatment, was introduced into the water system.

At concentrations 3,000 times the acceptable level, lead and copper were released from distribution pipes, leading to short-term illnesses such as headaches, abdominal pain and flu-like symptoms. There was also long-term harm, which can include kidney disease and even death.

The situation was worsened by poor governance and communication with the affected community.

The Walkerton and Camelford communities enjoy improved oversight of their water resources and infrastructure. In contrast, First Nations communities do not always see improvements after crises.

First Nations often forgotten

From 1962 to 1970, wastewater containing mercury from a paper mill was dumped into the Wabigoon-English River. It is the water supply for the First Nations communities of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, each about 100 kilometres from Kenora near the Ontario-Manitoba border.

The river is still contaminated with mercury, and indemnities granted to the paper mill owners from the federal and Ontario governments severely limit cleanup and monitoring.

While the First Nations communities received monetary compensation, the loss of a commercial fishery removed the primary source of income for the residents, and 90 per cent of the population continue to show signs of exposure to mercury.

The federal government reported in July that there were 150 drinking water advisories for First Nations south of the 60th parallel. Shoal Lake 40 First Nation on the Manitoba-Ontario border has been under boil-water advisory (BWA) since 1997, while Winnipeg continues to draw its freshwater supply from Shoal Lake.

A boy from the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation sits on a bridge over a channel in this 2015 file photo. The isolated reserve has been under a boil-water advisory for 20 years, one of Canada’s longest. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)


Clearly, an inequity in water quality services in First Nations compared to non-First Nations communities exists. It has contributed to the disparity and lack of trust and satisfaction about their water supply among First Nations.

Limited consultation with First Nations communities for projects related to their traditional lands and natural resources around them causes further distrust.

Canada, with about 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water, is perceived as a water-rich nation, but only a fraction — about 6.5 per cent — is renewable.

Changes in water quality owing to depletion of non-renewable groundwater supplies, contamination due to the release of inadequately treated or untreated sewage, discharge of emerging contaminants and climate change all pose challenges to the sustainability of water resources and the supply of safe water.

Solutions not always simple or clear

At any given moment, there are hundreds of boil water advisories in effect across Canada, many lasting more than five years. There is no national standard to determine when a BWA should be implemented. Reasons for BWAs include problems with disinfection systems and failed microbiological tests.

BWAs are an important precautionary tool regarding water safety. However, frequent and/or long-lasting BWAs may affect consumer behaviour to such a degree that people stop heeding them.

The development and implementation of risk management plans for water, based on quality requirements, is limited by what is considered safe.

In the context of human health, safe water contains negligible, if any, levels of harmful contaminants such as pathogenic bacteria, viruses or protozoa, cancer-causing chemicals or any other acutely toxic substance.

Other potential and emerging contaminants such as personal-care products, pharmaceuticals and antibiotic-resistant microbes may cause less acute illness. And they may affect populations such as the frail, elderly and children quite differently, making them difficult to address and include in risk management plans.

Acute crises draw attention to the need for multi-level risk management plans that are preventative rather than reactive, address the greatest risks, draw on experience and adequately invest resources for risk mitigation.

The failures serve to remind us that investing only in infrastructure and personnel training is not enough.

There must also be investment in programs and resources that incorporate broader environmental protection requirements, community involvement, education and research to better address contemporary water issues and prevent future water crises.

Steven Liss, Vice-President Research & Innovation; professor of chemistry and biology, Faculty of Science, Ryerson University; Anna Majury, Clinical Microbiologist, Public Health Ontario. Assistant professor Department of Biology and Molecular Sciences, Faculty of Health Sciences;, Queen’s University, Ontario, and Haley Sanderson, PhD student, Environmental Studies, Queen’s University, Ontario

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Making space for women at Ryerson


Today is International Women’s Day and it is only fitting that we reflect on the place of women within the academy and society in general. Over the decades of my academic career in developing and developed countries, I have seen major advances in the opportunities available to women. It is also encouraging to witness the increasing recognition of the importance of including women in all areas of our social and economic life. Women have embraced these opportunities and have made significant contributions to society; however, we have a long way to go.

Addressing the gender gap has benefits not only for women, but also for other marginalized and underrepresented communities as we move closer toward a more inclusive society.

Today’s world is facing complex challenges, and we need progressive solutions. We must ask ourselves: are we really getting the best talent when we’re leaving half of the talent on the sidelines? Research evidence, by Carnegie Mellon University and cited in Harvard Business Review, shows that women help to raise the collective intelligence of a group. With women at the table, innovation increases, creativity grows, and we create a stronger, more dynamic team of researchers to build solutions that impact lives and communities.

For far too long, the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields has been an issue in Canada and elsewhere. With International Women’s Day upon us, equity, diversity and inclusion at Ryerson amongst our faculty and our students are at the forefront of our thoughts.

We are encouraged by the presence of strong women leaders and researchers at Ryerson University. Examples of this innovative thinking is evident every day at Ryerson. Our female researchers are making important contributions, with some of them being our top research grant recipients. Their projects are creating knowledge and generating impactful change in our communities and abroad.

The next generation of female researchers are taking note and are forging ahead. For instance, in our Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science, young leader Amira Abdelrasoul is carving a path by innovating and creating new solutions for clean drinking water. In Ryerson’s Department of Chemistry and Biology, Stefanie Colombo’s work is showing how climate change is impacting our access to Omega 3 fatty acids from cold-water fish by negatively affecting their food source — algae.

Some students, like Nika Zolfghari, are taking the issue of equity to heart and working on projects like Pitch Black, an initiative that focuses on motivating girls as young as high school age to ensure that they don’t opt out of taking science classes, which could impact their long-term opportunities in STEM fields.

There is no shortage of outstanding women within the walls of our institution. All women need are the opportunities to succeed and make a difference in our world.


Photo credit: Gary Beechey

Student researcher demonstrates value of perseverance

Applying knowledge in new ways leads us down the path toward more discoveries. This next blog post highlights one of our promising young researchers. A PhD student at the time of his discovery, and now a sessional instructor at Ryerson, Ali Kamel Al jibouri has been passionate about the environment since childhood. He tells how persistence and perseverance in his research paid off in creating a new method of reclaiming industrial wastewater.

-Usha George, interim vice-president, research and innovation.

Q: Tell us about your interest in reclaiming industrial wastewater. What sparked your passion for this environmental cause?

My interest in reclaiming industrial wastewater began when I was a kid. I was a fan of the Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki. He was a major influence on my now perpetual interest in the issue of industrial wastewater treatment. Guided by the inspiration that Suzuki provided, I enrolled in a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering at the University of Baghdad- Iraq. My first chance to work in the industrial wastewater field started when the Ministry of Environment approached the university with a problem they could not solve: high levels of chloride and sulfate ion concentrations being discharged into the Tigris River from an industrial plant. I was enlisted to head up the investigation. I led a team that designed, manufactured, and installed electrodes to control the addition of oxidizing and reducing agents in the industrial electroplating wastewater treatment plant. We were able to reduce the concentrations of chloride and sulfate ions in the effluent to permissible levels.

This was my first experience with the thrill of having an outcome that had a significant impact on the environment. It was also the first time I understood the role that a researcher plays in the community of experts working to solve environmental issues.

When I began my PhD studies at Ryerson, it was natural for me to pursue my interest in industrial wastewater. My passion for the issue was consistent with the priorities of my new academic home. At Ryerson, research is driven by a commitment to discovering innovative solutions to pressing problems.

Q: Can you tell us about the moment of discovery when you realized your process was sound and you achieved the intended results?

Guided by my supervisor, Dr. Jianging Wu, and the chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, Dr. Simant Upreti, I undertook a line of inquiry that had never been pursued: the development of a novel optimal control of a continuous advanced oxidation process to minimize its operating cost. This kind of research has none of the “aha” moments that dominate popular imagination. Instead, it involves grinding it out, day after day, until you discover the appropriate kinetic parameters, modeling, simulation and optimal control.

We realized the impact of our findings when Environment Canada contacted us and told us that they decided to feature our process in the national technology matrix for the treatment of oil sands wastewaters. Environment Canada has also showed an interest in applying our technology to several controlled sites across Canada where non-biodegradable pollutants need to be treated. This outcome is what every researcher hopes for: the discovery of a novel and useful solution to a major problem that gets picked up by leaders in the field.

Q: Your research will have the potential to have great environmental impact. Can you talk about how you see your role as a researcher in effecting change in the world?

When I first became a researcher, I didn’t fully appreciate that my work was much more than something I was interested in pursuing. Now I have a deeper understanding that environmental challenges can be overcome when researchers and leaders help each other achieve and implement novel solutions. Innovation is a shared process. From David Suzuki to government agencies, and Ryerson University, we are all engaged in a joint initiative to address these environmental issues.


Amplifying your research through peer collaboration


Collaboration is one of the cornerstones of Ryerson’s success.

As we continue to see research funding dollars grow, while as a whole funding for post-secondary research is slowing, we have to look at the reasons why we continue to see success.

Our accomplishments mean that Ryerson is now recognized as a comprehensive university by Research Infosource. Our increased funding in graduate and post-graduate research makes Ryerson a preferred collaborator with many industry partners.

We must continue to draw on our strengths. At the recent SRC networking event, we heard from some collaborators about how Ryerson’s uniquely poised for cross-disciplinary efforts.

Professor Alan Fung discussed some of his own collaborations with peers at Ryerson. “Collaborations between professors are not a problem because of the culture here at Ryerson,” said professor of mechanical engineering, Alan Fung. “We don’t have the traditional structures of other universities.”

Fung has worked on projects with professor Phil Walsh in the entrepreneurship and management department at the Ted Rogers School of management. Together they tackled a training program for energy auditors of industrial facilities. Now they are working on building a net-zero home powered entirely by solar power.

Ryerson’s research institutes and labs can serve as a meeting space for researchers with similar interests as we heard from Walsh.

“The Centre for Urban Energy is a great place for us to aggregate,” said Walsh.  Prior to the establishment of CUE, professors interested in sustainability would occasionally host workshops, but rarely did they follow up. “The innovation and entrepreneurship space is key component of the centre. You start to realize your passions and things that are important to you and next thing you know you are working in teams,” he added.

Our funding partners value collaboration, both intra and inter institutional. Our industry partners look at proposals with an eye for who can offer them the most comprehensive solutions for their challenges.

When we combine the technical skills of a researcher with the business acumen of another, you get a winning combination. Businesses can see not only how their problems can be solved but how they can be applied to benefit their bottom line.

When our professors reach out to other faculties to help them solve problems they add a whole other dimension to their research. According to Anatoliy Gruzd from the Social Media Lab, collaboration has create opportunities for more resources, access to other equipment, as well as access to students who can help move the projects forward.

“Most of the projects I am working on, even the ones where I am the only principal investigator, have collaborators,” said Gruzd, adding how his lab often draws international collaborators. “A lot of international scholars are interested in collaboration with us because of the social media lab,” said Gruzd. “It increases our productivity in terms of publications and our capacity to train students.”

As you can see the benefits of collaborating are many.  OVPRI is happy to assist with any collaborative efforts between faculty members, and industry partners. Let us know how we can help.

The panel discusses the benefits of collaboration.
Anatoliy Gruzd (Social Media) explains how sharing resources can help further research and how collaborations with students can sometimes be a more flexible solution.
Attendees at the SRC Networking evening listen intently to the panel.
Usha George reminds the crowd of how collaboration is one of Ryerson’s greatest strengths.


What does a virus have in common with a terrorist cell? It’s all in the math.

As we showcase the variety of research and creative activities being undertaken at Ryerson, we thought it essential to let some of the researchers do the talking. They are the experts, after all. Our first guest blogger is Anthony Bonato, professor of mathematics. ~Interim Vice-President, Research and Innovation, Usha George



Q1. Tell us about your research:

I study networks: think of dots and lines representing the connections between them. Networks arise in all disciplines, and occur throughout the natural, social and technological worlds. I develop mathematical models for these so-called complex networks that predict their evolution and uncover their underlying mechanisms.

My most recent work is on the mining and modelling of networks of cultural works such novels and films. Our research team mapped out the community structure and central characters in the Harry Potter and Dune novels—all without reading a page! The aim is to use network science, machine-learning algorithms, and big data to uncover new phenomena in these texts.

I’m fascinated by dynamic properties in networks such as the spread of social contagion or memes. A doctoral student developed a new theory called graph burning. The burning number of a network gives a measure of how fast a fire (which plays the role of a meme) can spread in a network.

Q2. What drives your passion for your research?

My passion for mathematics began in high school, and fully ignited in university. I remember the first theorem I proved almost twenty years ago: it answered an esoteric sounding question on continuum-many universal Horn classes of bounded chromatic number. Looking back, it was a small result, but it was my first!

Curiosity and a love of my subject drive me forward. Research isn’t work when you love what you do. Many times in mathematical research, you don’t succeed answering the problems you initially asked. However, when things work it’s truly magical. Our publications capture those times when things worked, and I’ve been lucky to have over 100 publications in many areas of network science and graph theory.

Q3. Tell us about the impact of your research?

 My work on the geometry of social networks is, for the first time, quantifying a construct in the social sciences called Blau space. Applications of our work on biologically central proteins may eventually lead to the development of new therapeutic regimes for diseases like cancer. Another application of my work is to network interdiction, which focuses on the monitoring or disruption of intruders on a network. Think of stopping a virus spreading in a population or disrupting a terrorist cell.

I’ve been lucky to speak at international conferences in places like India and China. My most recent talk was a keynote lecture at Oxford University, where I spoke to an interdisciplinary audience containing mathematicians, physicists and engineers.

I love writing, and my blog focuses on my research and mathematics in pop culture. In just over a year, I’m proud that the blog has thirty thousand views. As another creative outlet, I’m writing science fiction. My short stories are live on Wattpad, and I am releasing a novel called Pattern Earth in 2017. In the book, a 16-year-old mathematics prodigy discovers a mathematical proof that triggers an alien invasion. How refreshing is it to have heroine be a mathematician for a change?



Transforming lives through knowledge creation

Vice-President Research and Innovation, Usha George speaks at Ryerson's New Faculty Orientation. (top right) Sarah Sabatinos and Josephine Wong share a laugh during the panel discussion. (bottom right) Julia Spaniol looks on as Alison Matthews David shares her insight with the audience.
Vice-President Research and Innovation, Usha George speaks at Ryerson’s New Faculty Orientation. (top right) Sarah Sabatinos and Josephine Wong share a laugh during the panel discussion. (bottom right) Julia Spaniol looks on as Alison Matthews David shares her insight with the audience.

In a room filled with the eagerness and excitement of new Ryerson professors, during the recent new faculty orientation, I was reminded of the privilege of an academic career. I was struck by the opportunity that lies ahead for not only the researchers in the room but also for the many lives and communities that will experience the impact of their future work.

I remembered my first year as a pre-tenure faculty member at the Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. As a relative newcomer to Canada, I was excited to have the opportunity to work in a university setting, as I had before I immigrated. I loved working with students and getting them engaged in the learning process. Research was integral to that engagement.

The focus of my scholarship was/is newcomer settlement and integration. As a graduate student in Chicago, I was very intrigued by how immigrant communities tried to blend their identities into their adopted identities. In spite of the common “melting pot” perception ascribed to American society, it was clear to me that immigrants embraced hybrid identities.

Later, in Canada, I studied the challenges that came with high levels of immigration during the 1990s with newcomer settlement concentrated in Toronto (almost 40 per cent settled in the Greater Toronto Area). The introduction of the point system for immigration removed racial discrimination from the selection process and introduced tremendous diversity among the newcomers arriving in Canada. The federal department of Citizenship and Immigration was interested in understanding the challenges related to settlement of the different communities in order to create programs to respond to the needs of newcomers. I completed a number of studies with new immigrant groups from various countries such as Iraq, former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Mainland China and several African countries.

As I concluded a number of these ‘needs’ studies, I came to the realization that the settlement needs of all newcomers were similar— all needed:
•    gainful employment,
•    housing,
•    language training,
•    information about available services
•    and social connections.

What was unique about each group was the language and cultural background and their pre-immigration experiences.  Based on this newly created knowledge , and the proposal for a model of settlement service delivery that followed, my research informed policy and practice as new programs were introduced in some Ontario cities to the benefit of the newcomers. As I evaluated some of these programs, I was able to see the application and impact of my research.

From studies on settlement and organizational practices that create barriers to settlement, I have moved on to studies on integration of newcomers to Canadian society. Currently, I am working on a study of the citizenship experience of racialized women.

Seeing the transformative effect of scholarly research continues to inspire my work. It was clear to me at the new faculty orientation that the excitement of creating knowledge is still alive, and I look forward to sharing in the passionate endeavours of our new researchers.

Creating knowledge and fostering creativity

ushageorge-1by Usha George, Interim Vice-President, Research & Innovation

Ryerson’s academic plan has set out a distinct path for growth—with one of its key components defined as increasing the excellence, intensity and impact of our scholarly, research and creative (SRC) activities.

At Ryerson, we believe in a broad and inclusive definition of research. We value basic and applied research while also placing importance on creative activities such as exhibitions, theatrical performances and other creative works. Our faculty members have the opportunity to choose from a wide range of research areas, as long as their research program meets the standards of ethics review, falls within the mandate of the university, and promotes public good.

An essential component of a faculty member’s work at Ryerson, research is central to our growing reputation. It fosters a culture of innovation and creativity. Ryerson prides itself on being a community-engaged university, and a city builder. We want to address real-world problems by responding to societal needs and contributing to the technological, cultural, social and economic well-being of society.

Research also helps us as academics. Through research, we stay current, infusing fresh materials in the courses we teach. The very act of creating knowledge is exciting. It gives us a sense of accomplishment and mastery. Sharing one’s research with students provides them with the opportunity to experience the thrills and challenges of creating knowledge, generating the kind of engagement and exceptional experiences we strive to achieve at Ryerson for our students. Moreover, as researchers we also benefit from student perspectives; in particular, our graduate students are bringing a fresh perspective to our high-level research.

In professional disciplines, research provides us with evidence to inform policy and practice. The integral relationship between theory, research and practice has been well established. Knowledge translation and mobilization of our research creates that important link between research and application by disseminating the newly created knowledge and engaging the end users.

Application is crucial to closing the innovation loop—it breaks down silos and brings us into our communities, where we see the real impact of our work as we continue to create knowledge and build solid relationships that strengthen our position as an engaged, innovative institution.

The case for innovation in diversity and inclusion


by Wendy Cukier, Vice-President, Research & Innovation

I recently presented to a room full of women at the Electricity Distributors Association’s Women Connected event, which featured a series of talks aimed at women in the energy industry.

The room was definitely energized as I delved into the subject of diversity. The research confirms what many women experience on a daily basis: in order to make room for diversity, we need to apply what we know about innovation to solve the problem.

Continue reading The case for innovation in diversity and inclusion

Creating a culture of innovation in the public sector


by Wendy Cukier, Vice-President, Research & Innovation

The Ontario Public Service has said it’s ready to innovate.
On April 16th, during World Creativity and Innovation Week, I led a session on innovation and system change for the Ontario Public Service (OPS) staff. Steve Orsini, Secretary of Cabinet and head of the OPS, joined me at the workshop attended by nearly 100 public service staff to discuss some of the obstacles to innovation.

Continue reading Creating a culture of innovation in the public sector

Innovation a topic of interest during pre-budget consultations with Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

by Wendy Cukier, Vice-President, Research & Innovation

During his stop in Toronto for pre-budget consultations with stakeholders, Finance Minister Bill Morneau heard from numerous experts on the topic of innovation, infrastructure and the environment at the Canadian Public Policy Forum. I participated as a panelist focusing on innovation along with Eme Onuoha, CIO Xerox Services and John Ruffolo, CEO OMERS Ventures. We, along with Minister Morneau, agreed that investing in a strong innovation ecosystem in Canada is necessary to create a foundation for economic prosperity.

Continue reading Innovation a topic of interest during pre-budget consultations with Finance Minister Bill Morneau.