Wider Horizons

Truth be told, it doesn’t look like much – a couple of buckets filled with water and rocks, with a maze of spigotsJessica Knoop and spouts jutting out in all directions. Yet the research that is taking place in the Aquaculture Centre of Excellence at Lethbridge College involving the water in those buckets could mean the difference between health and illness and even life or death, for people without access to clean drinking water around the world.

College students Heidi Genesis and Jessica Knoop are two of the main researchers on this project. They are working under the direction of microbiology instructor Tom Graham and Dr. David H. Manz, a Calgary-based water and environmental engineering consultant, on developing a back-flush slow biosand filter that will remove pathogenic microorganisms like Giardia cysts, Cryptosporidium oocysts and E. coli from water, ensuring that it is safe for everyone to drink.

Genesis, who has been taking prerequisites for the college and university’s joint Bachelor of Nursing – After Degree program, and Knoop, who is finishing the General Studies program this spring, joined Graham and Manz to talk about the work they are doing with the Biosand filter to help ensure the safety and quality of this most vital of all substances – water.

What is the problem you and the students are working to solve with Dr. Manz?

We were asked by Dr. Manz of Manz Engineering Ltd (MEL) to determine the effectiveness of his new back-flush slow sand filter design in removing pathogenic microorganisms from source water. 

How does the water filtration system work?   The MEL back-flush system is loaded with five different sizes of rocks and sand.   The rocks and sand are added into the filter largest size to smallest size.  This helps set up a filtering system that trap particles and microorganisms from source water as it passes through the filter.

There are two possible uses for this type of filter, as a polishing filter or as a biological filter.  As a polishing filter, the sand removes the particles and makes the source water cleaner and easier to treat with ultraviolet light and chemicals. AS a biological filter the microorganisms in the source water help develop an aerobic biological layer of microbes (also called a schmutzdecke, which means dirty blanket in German). The microbes in the biological layer will feed on the pathogenic microorganisms which helps remove them from the source water as it passes through the biological sand filter and makes the water safe to drink.

It is known as a back-flush filter because it can be back flushed from the bottom.  Back-flushing helps remove any particulate matter that plugs the filter over time.  This is important because the back –flush helps insure that the biofilm is not disturbed and keeps working at peak capacity. 

Why do you think it’s important for students to work on projects like this?

This is an easy question. Students are the main reasons we do what we do as instructors at Lethbridge College and if we can teach them to be great researchers or stewards of the environment it will not only make Alberta stronger it will make our world a better place.   Also, the older researchers have this wealth of information in their heads and by sharing it with the next generation it will be carried forward and not lost.  This is what happened to me in my early career and has made me into the research I have become.  I also learned another valuable lesson from my mentors and that is whatever you do in research it should always be based on this one question, “does it make a difference in the world?”  If it does do it, if it does not find something that does.

Why did you pick Lethbridge College as a partner for this research?

Dr. Manz: I needed water that had a consistent quality, water that is biologically similar from beginning to end. The water in the Oldman River, the Bow River, all rivers, changes daily. I knew that Lethbridge College had this aquatic research centre and fish tanks – lots and lots of fish tanks that are keeping water at a consistent quality. And Lethbridge College has Tom Graham. So we developed a possible solution to one of the problems, and now we are here to prove it works. The college is a good place if you want to get something done and answer some very important questions. This research has all sorts of humanitarian applications.

How did you get involved in this research project?

Knoop: I was lucky enough to be referred to Tom by my biology professor, Mark Klassen, last semester. I was really excited from the start (off the get go) and could hardly wait for Christmas break to end so I could see what this project had in store for me.

Genesis: While studying Microbiology in Tom's class in the fall semester, I really enjoyed the lab work and spent some extra time there, working with some other students on various activities. After we did a module on filtering water through a membrane filter and checking it for microorganisms, I was intrigued and Tom let me bring in some water from farms in my area and do tests on it. He also mentioned a number of topics in class, such as the pathology of various illnesses as related to microorganisms and we discussed issues like the impact of clean and unclean water on the incidence of illness in populations around the world. It was very interesting, and also inspiring, in that it made you want to learn something or do something that could make a valuable impact in people's lives. I had already asked Tom for his thoughts on ways to get involved in public health issues, so when he asked if I'd be interested in working on this project, it was an easy decision.

What is the best part about working on this project?

?Genesis: The hands-on work is something that is invaluable. It is an important way of learning, going a step further than just academia or theory. We have learned certain concepts--here we see them in action and observe the effects as we experiment with various parts of the system. We also do research, read journal articles, etc., but we use it to inform the process of our project. It is an active way of learning, and it is a lot of fun.

Another part of the project that is great (albeit not so 'fun') is that I make mistakes. Although I can get frustrated at myself or discouraged sometimes, as Tom says, that is how you learn and you won't make that same mistake the next time. It is actually a really important part of learning, and this is a safe environment in which to make those mistakes, so that I will be better skilled when I begin working outside of the school environment in the future. (Hopefully, I will still not make too many mistakes though!) Tom, Leanne and the other staff at the Aquaculture Centre have been incredibly patient with responding both to my questions and my mistakes, for which I am very thankful!

Knoop: The experience. It's "real science" and it's amazing. No matter where I go in my education and later my career, I'm gaining skills that will serve me throughout it all.

How is working on this project different than working on a typical class assignment?

Knoop: It's a completely different world. It's incredibly independent, it demands problem solving skills, personal initiative, trial and error learning, severe brainstorming at times, as well as team work and communication between all those involved. It's given me a glimpse into my future in the biology field.

Genesis: ?This project incorporates much more active learning that most class assignments, and I feel the learning is more organic. While there is a certain structure, it is really an experimental process, and so we have to continually respond and learn on the move, being observant and objective. Also, the smaller class size is terrific! It has been wonderful to be able to talk with a professor on a deeper level, get more feedback, learn in greater detail, etc., and my other “classmate” Jess is amazing to work with. She is hard-working, intelligent, and highly motivated. She is an inspiring student!

Does this work you have been doing with Tom apply to any of the work or studies you might want to do in the future?

Genesis: Absolutely.  ?My particular interests in nursing are focused on community public health on a local and global scale. Access to clean water has a huge impact on people's health, both here in Canada and abroad, and I have been glad to learn more about that. In addition, I would like to do more future work in research, and the skills I am learning in terms of lab and research work are inordinately helpful.

Even outside of future work opportunities, I think water and access to clean water are important issues about which we could all be more informed. Water is essential for life, it is such an important factor in our lives, and we often take it for granted. How much do we know about where our water comes from, how clean it is, our access to clean water (or water security) and how stable is our future water supply?  What can we do (in both positive and negative senses) that affects access to water for people around the world? In the future, I would love to do some volunteer work related to helping people in various areas of the world to ensure they have a sufficient supply of sanitary water. Before this project, I always thought, I want to help people, what can I do to make a positive difference in the world. Through this project, I am gaining knowledge and skills that will enable to me to be of greater assistance to some people in need. Environmental issues have always been an area of interest as well, and I'd like to get more involved in environmental work related to water.

At the moment, our project is focusing more on removal of pathogenic microorganisms from water, but it would also be interesting to do further research on the ability of these filters to remove other agents, such as chemicals and toxins, cleaning various kinds of waste water, etc.

Knoop: Completely. Beyond becoming a vet I plan on taking my education around the world to work in all sorts of environments to assist in the rehabilitation of endangered and threatened or troubled animal populations. This is going to bring me to areas of the world where people are directly affected by the work we're doing today. It's not just humans who need clean water; animals depend on it too. Furthermore, this project is opening my eyes to the problems outside of my small, college-student world and expanding my views, and that's something you use wherever you go, whatever you do.

Has anything surprised you about this work or project?

Knoop: Yes! I didn't know I could ever be so excited about water! Not only that, but also the amount that we “play it by ear” is something I didn't expect. You get used to the classroom version of science where there's a set procedure you follow and the results just happen but in the field, the science becomes real. You have to be flexible, expect the unexpected, and above all, keep moving forward. There are a lot of dead ends in research I think, so the people who actually go somewhere with it are the ones who refuse to give up and keep tackling the problems from different angles until they find what works.

Genesis: ?We are constantly learning things surprising things! One of the main ideas behind the biosand filter is that there will be an actual biofilm (or schmutzdecke, as it is often referred to) that will be growing on the surface of the sand filter and contributing in a major way to its effectiveness. Although sand filters are actually a rather ancient technology, in this age with its (over?)emphasis on sanitizing, it's rather counter-intuitive to think that bacteria and microorganisms are a beneficial organism that, in this case, will enable clean drinking water. The prevalence of sand filters and biosand filters was surprising.

While reading up about sand filters and water filtration, I also learned many facts that amazed me. For example, according to the World Health Organization:

  • 1.8 BILLION people globally use a drinking water source that is contaminated with feces.

  • Each year, well over 500,000 people die of diarrhea because of contaminated drinking water. (As many as 840,000 deaths/year.)

  • Ten years from now, it is estimated that HALF of the world's population will be living in water-stressed areas. (http://www.who.int/topics/water/en/


These facts seem shocking, when we seem to have such an abundance of clean water at the twist of our fingertips. It is a wake-up call that we also need to heed though, as even in our area, clean drinking water, water usage and water security are issues that I think will increase even more in importance in the near future. For such an important, and crucial, part of my life, it is surprising that I know so little about water, where the water I use comes from and how safe and clean it is. (I think our water is very clean, but it's just that I know very little about it, even though my life depends on it.)

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

??Knoop: It's been an amazing experience working with Heidi and Tom. Each of them has such an incredible knowledge and manner about them that just seems to breathe excellence. It's been an honour and a pleasure getting to learn with and be taught by such great individuals.

Genesis: Just that I am very thankful to Tom and Dr. Manz for their hard work and willingness to give us this opportunity. It is truly valuable. I hope that Lethbridge College will continue to ensure that projects like this, and others, can be made available for students to take part in such a terrific active learning process and contribute to the body of knowledge in various ways. To students, if you have the opportunity to get involved in a project, I would advise you to jump at the chance!

Tom, you’ve been involved in a number of interesting projects with students during your time at Lethbridge College – from working with algae to organizing trips for students to build greenhouses in Peru. You’ll be moving on from the college this summer to establish your own research lab in Truro, Nova Scotia. Do you have any parting words? 

Graham: I’ve had a great 10 years at Lethbridge College and have made a lot of great friends.  I will miss everyone and if any of you are ever out on the East Coast you know you have a place to stay.  Take care and never stop learning.    

For more information about Applied Research opportunities at Lethbridge, call 403-320-3202 ext. 5787 or email appliedresearch@lethbridgecollege.ca.


Wider Horizons
Lisa Kozleski
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