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Young researchers break new ground: UTSC lab will be first of its kind

Environmental chemist Myrna Simpson collects samples in the Highland Creek Ravine

UTSC researchers Myrna, 31, and André, 28, Simpson are international experts who aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty.

Through their research and application of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology, this dynamic couple is changing the way organic matter is analysed and revolutionizing the study of environmental pollutants’ effects on soil. Scheduled to open in August, UTSC’s NMR lab will be the first of its kind in the world dedicated to research in environmental chemistry. It will be outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment specially designed for separating and analyzing complex mixtures. 

“Soil is the world’s garbage can,” says Myrna. “Using this technology will allow us to answer fundamental environmental problems. Building this kind of lab at UTSC will be a huge draw for students and further strengthen UTSC’s international reputation.”

The NMR spectrometer is similar to the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment found in hospitals: both rely on advanced technology using magnetic fields and radio waves to acquire highly detailed information. 

“MRI looks at the human body,” says André. “NMR works on a much smaller scale, looking at compounds found in organic matter. By placing samples in a tube and inserting them into the NMR you can look at soil, leaves, air particles, anything found in nature really. It basically produces a molecular map.” 

Myrna, originally from Alberta, and André, from the UK, met at a conference in California in 1997. Both were working on their doctoral theses – Myrna in environmental chemistry and causes of soil pollution, and André in chemistry, using NMR to analyse the long-term changes of organic matter in different forested sites. They immediately felt a synergy between their unique areas of research. 

“It is definitely an excellent collaboration,” says Myrna. “NMR has been used for decades by chemists for routine analysis of small molecules. Rarely is NMR used to analyse the components of organic matter from various sources within the environment, such as soil, air, and/or water.” 

André notes that the majority of chemical analysis at universities occurs within chemistry departments and typically involves a rapid test. Because soil organic matter is so complex, the NMR tests require a minimum of 24 to 48 hours to produce a variety of information on the structures present in the environment. 

In addition to teaching, André will act as the lab’s director and be responsible for training students and researchers in applying NMR to environmental problems. 

He spent several years working with Bruker Biospin, one of the leading companies in this technology, which has been very supportive of the Simpson’s work. “They have donated a lot of equipment and have invited us to collaborate on a yearly basis by offering use of their development lab,” he says. Toronto-based company Advanced Chemistry Development has also donated leading edge software to help with the analysis.

Colleagues from around the world are already sending samples for analysis. 

“Research is done differently here in Canada,” says Myrna. “I think it is a more open, sharing environment, geared more toward quality. There are now a lot more programs to support research.”

Myrna applied to the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and received an initial grant to develop the Environmental NMR Centre at UTSC. She is also the recipient of one of only 25 national university faculty awards from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The grant pays part of her salary for five years and UTSC provides a reduced teaching load to allow more time for research.

 Through a second CFI proposal Myrna and André hope to make UTSC’s lab a national centre so that they can add the resources and instruments to accommodate visiting researchers and students. 

“The university has been very keen,” says Myrna, “And through its support has shown us a commitment to be involved in innovative research.”

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