Waste not: Grace Anne Stewart Speaker Series presents Lesley Warren

    Warren visits campus from the University of Toronto to speak on mining waste environments and improving diversity in science.

    By Andrew Lyle on November 23, 2018

    A champion of research into the waste products of resource extraction, the University of Toronto’s Lesley Warren visits campus November 23rd as an honoured guest speaker in the Grace Anne Stewart Speaker Series.

    Hosted by the University of Alberta’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, The Grace Anne Stewart Speaker Series celebrates diversity in the fields of geoscience and promotes the ongoing addition of new and diverse perspectives in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

    In addition to being a supporter of the need for diversity in STEM fields, Warren, professor in the U of T’s Department of Civil and Mineral Engineering, holds the Claudette MacKay-Lassonde Chair in Mineral Engineering and is the director of the Lassonde Institute of Mining. Warren will speak to attendees about the importance of increasing our understanding of waste environments in mines, and applying new molecular biological techniques to explore the roles of bacteria in affecting waste water quality.

    Hear from Lesley Warren on the importance of this research—and how pursuing strong science goes hand-in-hand with increasing diversity in STEM:

    Tell us a bit about your background—what inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?

    I fell into it. I was the first in my family to go to university, so there was no one mentoring me to go into this field. But I was always good at science and math in school, and I was passionate about water. As the child of a naval officer, I grew up around water, and this was the subject that grabbed me when I went to university

    It later turned out what really intrigued me was polluted water and the processes that lead to degradation of our water resources—and increasingly new ideas about how microbes could be important to shift our strategies to smarter solutions to steward and treat impacted waters

    Your address will focus on your research exploring waste from resource extraction. What makes this such an important field of study?

    Globally, extractive industries are estimated to produce 7.2 billion tons of waste and use seven to nine billion cubic metres of water, creating one of the fastest growing and least well-studied biogeochemical contexts on the planet.

    As mining landscapes continue to grow worldwide, the fundamental lessons learned in these contexts are also required to better inform our understanding of global biogeochemical cycling, which drives planetary function and impacts us all.

    What factors make waste management challenging for the resource sector?

    “The microbial processes that often generate environmental impacts like this remain a black box. .” —Lesley Warren

    Tailings—containing reactive sulfur, iron, nitrogen and carbon compounds, as well as significant volumes of wastewater—represent the largest global mining environmental liability. Currently, it is difficult for mines to design tailings impoundments or develop effective management and reclamation approaches that ensure no impacts to receiving environments—and that’s because the microbial processes that often generate impacts like this remain a black box. Once these impacts initiate, it is often challenging to reverse them.

    What are the potential applications of improving our understanding of this field?

    By addressing this critical biological knowledge gap through the joint application of genomics and geochemistry, we can begin to develop proactive modeling, monitoring, and management strategies to reduce impacts and risks to receiving environments.

    This also allows us to begin to identify creative, biologically informed strategies for treatment that are more sustainable for this industry. We will also discover new biotechnology applications from these largely unexplored microbial repositories and develop more robust global biogeochemical models.

    The Grace Anne Stewart speaker series celebrates diversity in the Earth & Atmospheric Sciences department and field. What is your perspective on the importance of diversity in STEM?

    It’s simple: why would we shut the door on bright ideas and creative minds by restricting STEM to a dominance by white men? Equity of idea development and advances in STEM require equity of opportunity, access to resources and inclusivity. The more the doors are thrown open, the more we accelerate STEM advances and benefits to society.

    Anything else that you'd like to add?

    The inherent biases that women and other minorities in STEM face on a day-to-day basis require implementation of active and on-going structural processes to ensure that they are given opportunities, treated equitably, and that barriers to their success are removed.

    Inclusivity is a top-down driven process—it comes from university leadership. Recruitment is only one aspect of successful STEM diversity. Retention will continue to be a substantive challenge until universities, funding agencies and journal review boards alter their structural processes to deal with the inherent bias so rampant within these contexts that marginalize diverse groups.

    Until this culture shift occurs, we will make only incremental progress in changing these contexts to inclusive systems that enable the brightest minds to develop the brightest ideas and truly allow STEM to flourish.

    Learn more about the Grace Anne Stewart Speaker Series and Lesley Warren’s presentation on the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science speaker series website.

    Interested in learning more about diversity initiatives in STEM? Check out the Faculty of Science Diversity in Science hub for information about diversity and intersectionality, news features of women in science, and information about groups on campus focusing on empowering women and fostering diversity in science.