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At the intersection of research and policy

[Diane Orihel]
Diane Orihel, the Queen’s National Scholar in Aquatic Ecotoxicology, arrived at the university at the beginning of the winter term. (University Communications)

As the newest Queen’s National Scholar, Diane Orihel is settling in at the university.

The QNS in Aquatic Ecotoxicology, Dr. Orihel’s research looks into the fate and effects of contaminants in the environment. Specializing in freshwater ecosystems, she uses an ecosystem approach to ecotoxicology.

“Traditionally, toxicology has focused on short-term assessments of the direct toxicity of a chemical on a model organism,” she explains. “Such experiments are informative but that’s not what actually happens in the real world. The real world is complex – contaminants released from smoke stacks or sewage outfalls often change as they enter and move through aquatic ecosystems, and affect not only individual plants and animals, but whole food webs. By using an ecosystem-based approach to ecotoxicology, I unravel the intricacies of how chemicals behave in our lakes and wetlands and the impacts they have on everything from plankton to fish.”  

As the QNS, Dr. Orihel is jointly-appointed to the School of Environmental Studies and Department of Biology. It’s an ideal set up she explains and was one of the biggest draws for coming to Queen’s. Her work, she says, while grounded in science, is always framed in terms of environmental policy.

“All of my research starts with the question: what is the policy need and what are the scientific  data required to address that policy need?” she says. “Being able to have a foot in the Department of Biology and a foot in the School of Environmental Studies is a very good match for me because that’s what I do. For me, science doesn’t stop at the scientific publication. I work hard to bring my science to the public and to engage decision makers, so that together we can make strides toward solving our most pressing environmental problems. ”

For example, her research has already contributed to: linking atmospheric mercury deposition and methylmercury concentrations in fish; understanding nutrient recycling and toxic algal blooms in freshwater lakes; and probing the degradation of a common flame retardant in the natural environment.

Another advantage Queen’s offered Dr. Orihel is its proximity to the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). A mere 45-minute drive north and she is immersed in her research environment. At the same time Dr. Orihel is excited to be working with some of the leading experts in water issues, in Canada and around the world, at Queen’s.

The QNS program was established in 1985with the objective of attracting outstanding early and mid-career professors to Queen’s to “enrich teaching and research in newly-developing fields of knowledge as well as traditional disciplines.” 

Dr. Orihel definitely fits the mold.

Her ecotoxicology research addresses two of the leading environmental issues in Canada.

Currently, the Government of Alberta is looking at reintegrating wastewater from oil sands mining and upgrading that is currently stored in tailings ponds. First, however, the water, billions of litres, will have to be treated.

Dr. Orihel wants her research to contribute to ensuring that downstream aquatic life isn’t detrimentally impacted.

“We need to rigorously test in a realistic setting whether existing treatment technologies effectively reduce the toxicity of tailings pond water. Academia, government, and industry need to partner on this important issue. Only then can we be confident that releasing this waste water will not change the ecological integrity of downstream ecosystems and the vital services they provide to local First Nations and other communities.”  

At the same time, Dr. Orihel is part of an NSERC strategic project that is looking into the effects of diluted bitumen (dilbit) spills on freshwater ecosystems. It is a timely topic, she says, as there are a number of pipelines transporting unconventional oils such as dilbit, but little understanding of how these materials behave following a spill and what effects they have on freshwater ecosystems.

“Obviously, we have to do everything we can to prevent oil spills, but inevitably, things can go wrong and these spills do occur,” she says. “We need to be properly prepared to respond to spills in freshwater environments. We need to learn how dilbit behaves in fresh water and what treatments are best to apply to minimize the negative impacts of these spills.”

After completing her undergraduate studies at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Orihel earned a Masters of Natural Resource Management from the University of Manitoba, and a PhD from the University of Alberta. Most recently she was a Banting and Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa.

To learn more about Dr. Orihel’s research, visit her website.

For more on the Queen’s National Scholar program, visit the QNS page on the Provost’s website.