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More than summer fun in Muskoka for PhD student

By Mark Kerr, Senior Communications Officer

Like many students, Sarah Hasnain has spent her summer on the water. However, this biology PhD candidate has devoted her time to academic rather than leisure pursuits.

[Sarah Hasnain]PhD candidate Sarah Hasnain is conducting research on the response of zooplankton communities in the Muskoka Watershed to the spiny water flea, an invasive species. (Supplied photo) 

Ms. Hasnain’s research on the response of zooplankton communities to the spiny water flea, an invasive species in the Muskoka Watershed, earned her the inaugural Muskoka Summit on the Environment Research Award earlier this summer. The $7,500 award supports a graduate student’s environmental research within Muskoka in fields related to environmental science, resource studies and/or policy.

“I never expected to win, especially since there is a lot of excellent and important environmental research being carried out in this region,” says Ms. Hasnain, who is co-supervised by Shelley Arnott (Biology) and Troy Day (Mathematics and Statistics). “Having my research recognized as being important by not only local scientists, but managers and stakeholders as well, is very humbling.”

The Muskoka Watershed is the most heavily invaded region for the spiny water flea in Canada. Previous research has shown the spiny water flea results in a decline of zooplankton, an integral part of the aquatic food web. Zooplankton consumes algae and, in turn, serves as a food source for fish.

Having my research recognized as being important by not only local scientists, but managers and stakeholders as well, is very humbling.

Sarah Hasnain, PhD candidate (Biology)

Ms. Hasnain is examining how differences in the behaviour of Daphnia species of zooplankton can actually help invaded lakes absorb and recover from the impacts of the spiny water flea. During a field survey last summer of 63 lakes in the Muskoka region, she found the Daphnia zooplankton move lower in the water column to avoid the spiny water flea, a visual predator that needs light to feed. She plans to use these findings to test whether this downward movement can help zooplankton communities survive spiny water flea invasions. Her work could help stakeholders better manage lakes that have been invaded by the spiny water flea.

Two years into her PhD program, Ms. Hasnain is particularly interested in community ecology, which focuses on examining the biological mechanisms that maintain species diversity on Earth. She intends to use the award money to finance her research expenses and living costs for this summer’s field season.