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Citizen Science: Saint Mary’s Professor Giving Communities New Tools to Monitor their Environment

Dr. Cathy Conrad hopes that one day the WET-PRO field kit will become the world standard for water quality monitoring. She believes there is a big market for it in emerging nations in Africa and elsewhere in the world where clean water is a major health concern.When Dan Hutt isn’t heading Canada’s largest acoustics laboratory at DRDC Atlantic, he volunteers with Eastern Shore Forest Watch.
It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday for the busy scientist. The environmental stewardship group keeps a watchful eye on miners, loggers, and other industries operating in the fragile forest ecosystem along Nova Scotia’s eastern shore, monitoring science, checking pollution levels in lakes that front gold mine tailings, and making sure the industries operating in the area behave in a responsible manner.

“If nothing else, the mining companies know that these citizen scientists are out there keeping an eye on what they’re doing,” says Hutt. “They know that they had better watch what they’re dumping in the lake.”

Lately Hutt and his group have added a powerful new weapon to their arsenal, thanks to Saint Mary’s University geography professor Cathy Conrad, a local pioneer in community based monitoring. Since 2004 her organization, the Community-Based Environmental Monitoring Network (CBEMN), has been helping concerned citizen volunteers and groups like Eastern Shore Forest Watch monitor, track, and respond to issues of environmental concern. In 2009, with the help of $46,636 in public outreach funds from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Conrad developed the WET-PRO certification program, which teaches volunteer members the
intricacies of testing and scientific procedures.

“Knowing how to do the science properly makes these groups a lot more credible when they raise concerns about things like water quality and pollution,” says Conrad. To date, more than 80 local organizations have signed up for the program.

Conrad has also developed the WET-PRO field kit, a portable water-testing tool kit that community groups can carry into the field. The cleverly designed kit was created in collaboration with Glen Hougan and Gord Morrison of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

“We began by looking at the kind of water testing kits that were available on the market,” says Conrad. “The number of kits that were out there was quite overwhelming. I had a grad student researching the Internet for four months.”

But despite the plethora of the kits, she couldn’t find anything that would be easy for volunteer groups to use and still meet the rigorous standards of scientific credibility.

“Most were so intimidating, expensive, and high end that they were out of the range of what our groups needed,” says Conrad. “Other kits were so basic they were really just scientific toys. There wasn’t anything in between.”

At first glance the WET-PRO field kit looks like a giant first-aid kit—a clean rugged suitcase packed with apparatuses like a digital weather station, a GPS, turbidity monitor, sample bottles, field testers, and a pH pen. A removable accordion bag contains a more basic kit that can be easily carried to remote lakes and watersheds.

“It’s got everything that a professional scientist would need to conduct accurate water tests,” says Conrad, “but it’s also very easy to learn to how to use.”

Conrad says that once it passes the prototype testing, the kit will also have a big market in emerging nations in Africa and elsewhere where clean water is a major health issue.

“Our first goal is to make sure it works really well in Nova Scotia, and then we’ll see if we can make it work in other parts of the world.” She’s getting assistance in marketing the WET-PRO system from the Saint Mary’s University Industry Liaison Office, and such groups as Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Nova Scotia Department of the Environment have also expressed interest.

“We hope that WET-PRO will become the gold standard for water-quality monitoring around the world,” she says.

Dan Hutt believes that empowering an army of citizen scientists with the WET-PRO system will have a dramatic effect on environmental science around the world and make true trending analysis of data an achievable goal. The technology dovetails with new technologies such as GIS and Google Earth, allowing volunteer scientists to reference the data geographically in ways that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.

“It’s part of a new way of doing environmental science,” he says. “It’s like predicting the weather. If you have a lot of data, you have a much better picture of what’s going on. It’s a big planet.”

— Tom Mason (Courtesy Progress Magazine)

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