Bees, microplastics and duckweed: A behind-the-scenes look at three Research Opportunities Program projects

September 26, 2022 by Christine Elstub - A&S News

From water pollution to bee extinction, students participating in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Research Opportunities Program (ROP) tackled important environmental topics this summer. The program provides second- and third-year undergraduate students in the humanities, sciences and social sciences with opportunities to join an instructor’s research project for course credit.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at three ROP courses from the summer 2022 term.

Bees for peace

Bees are essential to our global food supply, but bee populations are in decline due to various factors like climate change and loss of habitat. Students in Bees for Peace, a second-year ROP course offered by the School of the Environment, worked with religious communities in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to protect and support local bee populations.

Projects included designing and planting pollinator gardens — which support bees by providing food and shelter — on church grounds. In the video below, students Michelle Lee of New College and Olivia Kreutzer of Victoria College work with members of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Toronto to lay the groundwork for a pollinator garden in front of the church entrance.

Students also educated congregations about the threat of bee extinction by handing out pamphlets and leading summer camp activities for children.

Documenting microplastics in Toronto’s air and water 

Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic present in virtually all surface waters, as well as in humans, fish and other aquatic organisms. Miriam L. Diamond, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, has done extensive research on microplastics and found that they are abundant in Lake Ontario waters. Less well known is where microplastics are coming from and how they move through the environment to end up in our water — information that is critical to developing strategies to reduce microplastic pollution.  

To shed light on these questions, students in Diamond’s summer ROP course worked in collaboration with Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Parks and Conservation to collect air and water samples from field sites in the GTA. Samples were then prepared and brought back to a lab, where students counted microplastics and categorized their shapes and colours using a microscope.  

Jessy Xu and Katie Wang, both members of University College, were part of a team that tested water from Etobicoke Creek in July. Watch them collect and prepare water samples in the video below.

Ecology & evolution of host-microbe mutualisms 

If you have ever seen a pond covered by what looks like neon green carpeting, you were probably looking at Lemna minor, more commonly known as duckweed — a tiny aquatic plant that floats on top of still-water surfaces. This small but mighty plant has many potential uses, for example, as a water purifier, food for fish and other animals — and potentially even a source of biofuel.

Even more promising is duckweed’s ability to withstand environmental stress thanks to the mutually beneficial relationship it has with members of its microbiome. This was the subject of Ecology and Evolution of Host-Microbe Mutualisms, an ROP course offered by the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Trinity College member Magnus Roland Marun collected multiple duckweed samples from Toronto’s High Park this summer and brought them back to Professor Megan Frederickson’s Lab to study how the plant’s microbiome changes over time.

Students will be sharing their research findings from these and other summer projects at the ROP Poster Fair, taking place on Thursday, September 29, 2022, from 1:30 to 5 pm in the lobby at Sidney Smith Hall (100 St. George Street). All U of T students, staff and faculty are welcome to attend.