From research to reward

By Maia Odegaard, Marketing and Communications

Jessica Hillman has a personal interest in the water quality of Hatzic Lake. “My mom owns a property there. It’s been her dream to have a house on a lake forever, and we finally got the foundation poured,” says the Environmental Science student. “But recently the Fraser Valley Regional District has had to ban people from swimming because the water is so bad.”

With that, Jessica’s personal interest took a scholarly turn. Along with classmate Nathan Pennykid, she took EAES 2537 at Douglas College last semester, an Environmental Science course that gave them the opportunity to do research on a topic of their choice involving a locale and associated environmental issues.

Because of the thorough studies both Jessica and Nathan conducted while taking this Environmental Science course, they were eligible for the TD Award of Distinction, which rewarded them each with a $1,000 cash prize.

Jessica Hillman

For Jessica, delving into the deteriorating water quality of Hatzic Lake was a no-brainer.

“In the past year, the lake water became eutrophic,” Jessica says. “Basically, there’s a huge excess of nutrients, which leads to excessive plant growth. The plant growth then causes a lack of oxygen, which kills the fish.” Human beings and dogs were also getting sick from the lake water.

Jessica performed a bacterial analysis of the water. She rightly assumed that with heightened nutrient levels, the lake would also be home to an abundance of bacteria. “I suspected that Hatzic Lake would have a greater biodiversity, and I was curious if the bacteria present was having a negative effect on the water.”

With the guidance of instructor Dr. Elinor Matheson, Jessica collected and compared water samples from both Hatzic Lake and Buntzen Lake, in Anmore, B.C., which they knew to be oligotrophic, with low algae production. “There’s no chemical run-off from farm land, fewer pollutants, and rules against motorized boats at Buntzen,” says Jessica. “Whereas at Hatzic, anything goes.”

Her mother was, and remains, enthusiastic about Douglas College students finding a solution to the dire state of Hatzic’s water. “We’ve offered, in future, once the house is built, to host Douglas College students who want to conduct the experiment again or do additional research,” says Jessica. “My mom would love them to come fix her lake.”

Nathan Pennykid stayed on land to conduct his research.

Nathan Pennykid

Focusing on the area of insect ecology, Nathan worked with Dr. Robert McGregor to investigate a threatened species of ground beetle, the Omus audouini, also known as the Audouin’s night-stalking tiger beetle.

His research determined that Omus audouini in Boundary Bay, B.C., is predominantly found where Douglas Aster flowers and salt grass grow, whereas none of the previous research done by COSEWIC (the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) showed these beetles occupying Douglas Aster-dominant communities.

 “I really enjoyed that I was able to work at my own pace – within reason, of course – and that I got to study something that actually interested me,” he says.

Nathan says the real payoff of the course was learning how to conduct an in-depth scientific study from the beginning to the end. “I was especially interested in the stats I gathered on the topic of the Omus audouini, which has only ever been found a maximum of three kilometres from the coast.”

While Jessica is planning to pursue a career in environmental science that will incorporate her love of fieldwork, Nathan is starting a new job as an environmental technologist before transferring his credits to SFU to complete a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Science.

“The plan is to become an environmental scientist,” he says. “But I’m open to other careers in my field. It all depends on what I end up finding most interesting.”