Researcher profile: Sarah Beattie

Sarah Beattie is a University of Manitoba M.Sc. candidate in the department of environment and geography, studying mercury and methylmercury cycling in Arctic sea ice environments.

“When I take my ice cores in the Arctic we can be out on the sea ice, take our ice cores, take them into the clean lab on the ship, and analyze the ice almost immediately. You’re able to tell whether they’re contaminated or not [on site].”

Beattie spoke with the Gradzette about her research in the Arctic aboard the CCGS Amundsen (the same icebreaker/research vessel that graces the Canadian $50 bill), gathering and analyzing ice cores for trace levels of methylmercury.

“We’re working in this little lab [on the Amundsen], and then you look outside the window and see polar bears out on the ice!”

Beattie completed her honours in biochemistry at the University of Winnipeg and began her master’s program shortly thereafter under the direction of Feiyue Wang in September of 2011. Well into her second year of the program, Beattie reveals that it was her twin passions in chemistry and the environment that first made working with Wang, an environmental chemist and Arctic sea ice expert, appealing.

“I wanted to try to find something that would give me lab experience but also give me time outdoors. Environmental chemistry is perfect for that,” explains Beattie.

While her Arctic adventures aboard the Amundsen are now over, at least with respect to her current master’s project, Beattie, Wang et al. recently began a three-week-long international experiment at the U of M’s own Sea-ice Environmental Research Facility (SERF).

Researchers from as far as Germany and Denmark are teaming up with Canadian researchers to utilize the unique ice pond over the three-week period.

Drs. Wang (SERF project leader), Soren Rysgaard (Canada Excellence Research Chair in Arctic Geomicrobiology and Climate Change), David Barber (Canada Research Chair in Arctic Systems Science), and Tim Papakyriakou are the principal investigators at the SERF, with several technicians, honours and graduate students also involved.

Wang and Beattie’s main research concerns centre on trying to understand methylmercury pathways in the Arctic by studying sea ice. Having fresh sea ice at the SERF within walking distance of their new laboratories in Wallace Building makes conducting research all the more efficient and cost effective.

“My job is to measure total mercury distribution in the water, in the sea ice, and in the frost flowers at SERF,” says Beattie. “Feiyue will be measuring atmospheric mercury. We’ll be able to measure the transport of mercury from the atmosphere to the sea ice, to the underlying water column, or in the reverse direction.”

In an interview with the Manitoban, Wang described frost flower formation.

“Concentrated salt ejects from the surface [waters], and the water vapour then condenses on it. It looks really pretty.”

Wang and others surmise that the highly salty brine of the frost flowers may play a key role in facilitating the transport of chemicals like mercury from the atmosphere into the Arctic marine ecosystem.

In their Ultra Clean Trace Elements lab as well as at the SERF, Beattie relies on instruments such as Cold Vapour Atomic Fluorescence Spectroscopy (CVAFS) to track mercury concentrations in the water, ice or surrounding atmosphere.

Starting with ice from ice cores and frost flowers, Beattie explains how the CVAFS functions to concentrate the sample and then “convert [it] from being any type of mercury species—this could include particulate mercury, [or] oxidized mercury—to the elemental form of mercury.”

“The mercury is concentrated and converted to elemental mercury, and then it’s analyzed using fluorescence,” Beattie concludes.

Beattie’s own research findings in the Arctic did not confirm the presence of methylmercury in the sea ice, nor in the multiyear (two years old or older) sea ice.

Mercury is one of the most neuro toxic metals in the atmosphere. “The interesting thing about mercury is that it can be in so many different phases: it can be in the air, in the water, in the sea ice [ . . . ] It’s a fun thing to study, but you have to be careful.”

“Whenever you hear about people getting sick from mercury, it’s [usually] methylmercury,” remarks Beattie, mentioning the death of chemist Karen Wetterhahn to illustrate her point.

Wetterhahn was a toxic metals specialist who passed away in the late 90s from dimethylmercury poisoning.

“One drop fell on her,” states Beattie, “it actually went through her glove,” and she died less than a year later.

Indeed, mercury can be dangerous in high concentrations. What Wang and Beattie are looking at, however, are trace levels. “Parts per trillion,” explains Beattie, making the analogy of a grain of salt in an Olympic size swimming pool.

While laboratory accidents of Wetterhahn’s magnitude are rare, Beattie is mindful of the risky nature of her everyday lab work, and is in fact all the more encouraged to understand the mechanism of Arctic mercury circulation, as it is causing a host of health problems in northern communities.

One of the main challenges facing the people of the Arctic relates to food security, states Beattie. Mercury concentrates in the Arctic’s megafauna—beluga whales, seals, polar bears—which lead to the disconcertingly high mercury levels we see today among individuals in northern communities whom rely on these species as dietary staples.

“Canada’s Inuit population has the highest concentration of mercury in their breast milk” Reflects Beattie, which is incentive enough for anyone like her to carry on researching mercury contamination in the Arctic.

And for anyone considering graduate school in the near future, Beattie says the new lab in Wallace Building is big enough that Wang will be looking to take on several more students, so “Summer/Fall 2013 would be an excellent time to apply.”

This article was originally published in the Gradzette.