Ask Brian Ames, Sc’84, about his earliest memories, and chances are he’ll mention a beach on Lake Huron. His family would take him there as an infant, and that’s probably where his love of the Great Lakes began.
The retired chemical engineer grew up in Sarnia, Ont., so Huron’s pristine blue waters were a constant as he graduated from sandcastles to water-skis and sailboats. Later, between classes and studying at Queen’s, he’d explore the Kingston lakeshore and fall for another of the great ones.
His passion for the Great Lakes may be strongest now, though. Mr. Ames is the board chair at the Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR), a binational group that connects diverse interests, sectors, people, and institutions like Queen’s across the Great Lakes region. Their goal: to address region-wide policy changes and cultivate a strong voice to influence decisions that affect the region’s socioeconomic and environmental interests.
“This region is the best place in the world to be,” says Mr. Ames over the phone from his cottage near Lake Michigan. “But, you know, sometimes people don’t realize what we have here.”
He wants to change that, and he’s not the only Queen’s alum on the CGLR board with that goal in mind. Brenda Drinkwalter, Arts’70; Wayne Garnons--Williams, Law’90; and Heather Ferguson, Artsci’92, MSc’96, are there, too.
The four alumni – and the CGLR as a whole – know that as underrated as the region may be, it’s also facing significant challenges. Yes, the Great Lakes contain more than 20 per cent of the world’s fresh surface water, but old and new threats such as plastic pollution, urban sprawl, and climate change continue to put those waters at risk. Likewise, while the region may represent what the CGLR notes is the world’s third-largest economy, analyses from the Brookings Institution suggest that manufacturing-reliant geographies like this one may be hardest hit in a post-pandemic world.
Of course, these aren’t easy challenges for an organization like the CGLR to even attempt to solve on its own. That’s why collaboration with industry, academia, government, and NGOs is at the heart of everything it does.
Over the past year, that collaboration has increasingly involved Queen’s, and now the two are focused on two initiatives in particular. One is the Great Lakes Higher Education Consortium, which is a forum for creating and funding partnerships between several universities on the Great Lakes. The other is Circular Great Lakes and its sister project, the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup – a joint project with environmental charity Pollution Probe – which is trying to put a significant dent in the 10 million kilograms of plastics that enter the Great Lakes every year.
Both projects are helping Queen’s advance the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, and while they’re not the only ones at the university focused on the Great Lakes, they are important because of the co-operative work involved, says Queen’s Principal Patrick Deane, who is a member of the Great Lakes Higher Education Consortium’s executive committee. “I have a very strong conviction that the most valuable work universities will do in the next several decades will be collaborative in nature. The great challenges that face humanity in our region – and in the world more broadly – call for multidisciplinary, multi-institutional, and multisector co-operation.”
The partnership between Queen’s and the CGLR really began more than a year ago after a meeting between Principal Deane, Queen’s alumna Brenda Drinkwalter, and CGLR president and CEO Mark Fisher. Soon after, Queen’s joined the Great Lakes Higher Education Consortium as a founding member, partnering with McGill University, the University of Toronto, the University of Illinois, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin.
The whole point of the consortium is threefold, says Mr. Fisher. One is to be a platform for these universities to get together and figure out how they can address the skills shortages the region is facing. Another is to support the kinds of entrepreneurial development that will help employ the next generation. And the third is to get these institutions working more collaboratively on research and science.
“This region has one of the largest clusters of high-performing education institutions in the world, but the connections between them are in many cases casual. They’re very much between faculty members,” says Mr. Fisher. “So, we really want to provide a framework that entices these institutions to connect across borders and do more deeper science and research on some of these big issues not only facing the region, but also globally.”
It’s still early days for the consortium, so most of the work has involved creating a governance framework to guide projects and a grant structure to fund them. In the short term, Mr. Fisher says they want to build a sizable fund that can support more of these collaborations between universities and others. Those could look like workshops focused on skills shortages, for example, or specific research projects aimed at ecological concerns within the Great Lakes, or even exchange programs between universities.
Queen’s Vice-Provost (International) Sandra den Otter is part of the Queen’s contingent involved with the consortium, and she says this is a massive opportunity for the university to partner with other research-intensive universities, government, and industry on both sides of the border. “Because the problems impacting this region are so complex, the collaboration between researchers, government, and industry is critical. If a researcher identifies an urgent problem and change is needed but we don’t have follow-through with government and industry, then change probably isn’t going to happen. So, that collaboration here is what’s so promising about the consortium.”
One of those urgent problems in the Great Lakes is plastic pollution. According to a 2016 study out of the Rochester Institute of Technology, more than 22 million pounds of plastic ends up in the Great Lakes every year. The plastic not only threatens the drinking water of nearly 50 million people in Canada and the U.S., but wildlife, too. A 2021 study published in the journal Conservation Biology found that seven fish species in Lake Ontario and Lake Superior had “the highest concentration of microplastics and other anthropogenic microparticles ever reported in bony fish.”
The CGLR is trying to help put an end to plastic pollution in the Great Lakes through a collaboration called Circular Great Lakes. Corporate activation partners help fund this important work and provide industry collaboration that is critical to the initiative's overall impact and success. The first priority in the five-year road map is to capture and clean up plastic packaging litter and pollution, and the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup is central to this. It’s another collaborative project involving Queen’s that uses technology to not only remove plastics at marinas across the Great Lakes but also to share data to educate coastal communities and policy-makers about how to forge a future without plastic waste and litter.
One of the technologies being used in Kingston is called a “Seabin,” two of which are currently bobbing along in Confederation Basin Marina and Portsmouth Olympic Harbour. “They look like floating garbage pails that suck water through them and collect the garbage that’s there,” says Brian Ames. “But what’s more important is analyzing what’s collected so that we can understand what the plastics are and where they’re coming from – and that’s where the schools get involved.”
At Queen’s, the point person for the project is Biology and School of Environmental Studies Assistant Professor Diane Orihel, whose research focuses on plastic pollution in freshwater ecosystems. She’ll soon be hiring students to do the detailed waste characterization in the Seabin as well as to work on public outreach. In the meantime, she has been taking students from her ecotoxicology class out to Portsmouth to learn how to characterize the waste collected in the Seabin.
“It’s so important for Queen’s to be involved in initiatives like this,” says Dr. Orihel. “We’re right on the shore of Lake Ontario, so we have a role to play in helping raise awareness about plastic pollution and building the body of evidence to inform policy decisions. We also have a responsibility as a university to not only teach students information in classrooms, but also provide them with experiential learning opportunities where they can get out in the community and become engaged in local issues.”
Queen’s researchers are also engaging with the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup and other CGLR projects. For instance, Dr. Orihel might soon use the collected microplastics to assess the ecotoxicological effects on fish or frogs at the Queen’s University Biological Station, a 3,400-hectare, nine-lake field station north of Kingston where academics and students conduct research and take courses. And at the Beaty Water Research Centre – the Queen’s hub for the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup – Dr. Ryan Mulligan is collaborating on a CGLR project that's promoting the use of integrative blue-green infrastructure design. These are infrastructure projects that use both natural blue elements, such as rivers and ponds, and green ones, such as trees and grasslands, to create more environmentally sustainable areas to live, work, and play.
In other words, the collaborations between Queen’s and the CGLR are just getting started.
Mr. Ames can’t wait to see where they go next. “Of course, being a Queen’s grad, I’m excited about Queen’s being involved in the work we’re doing to help people recognize just how good it is here and how to make it better. I think it’s going to be a deep relationship.”