Intern works to simplify detection of arsenic in drinking water

Through a global scan of existing arsenic tests, a Mitacs Globalink–Fulbright Canada intern helps BC team design an affordable home-based alternative

With the goal of reducing the risk of arsenic contamination in drinking water, American chemical engineering student Andrea Green is helping a University of Victoria (UVic) lab create a rapid, low-cost, and reliable detection test using a cellphone — all from the comfort of her home in Atlanta, Georgia.

Relying on video calls and other advanced technology tools, Green is one of over 1,000 students from 12 countries conducting leading-edge research at 54 Canadian universities through the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship program. The intern, who is an undergraduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Fulbright Canada grantee, is working remotely under the guidance of Dr. Heather Buckley, Assistant Professor at UVic’s Department of Civil Engineering.

A natural component of the earth’s crust but highly toxic in the inorganic form, arsenic poses a great risk to public health as it can be found in unclean water used for drinking, food preparation, and irrigation. Applying her expertise and keen interest in sustainability, Green is conducting a global scan of existing detection sensors in order to identify gaps and limitations, and to ensure an effective portable solution. 

“One of the main reasons I chose to take part in the program was to talk with people from other countries and I would be very willing and happy to one day be part of a global effort to detect arsenic in water — just as the world came together to fight COVID-19, I believe it can be done,” Green says. 

Her thorough review — which includes donning goggles and gloves to assess currently available test kits on her own tap water — is guiding the research lab as it builds a home-based tool that will be both simple to use and affordable. 

Can a long-term water contamination problem be solved?

As Dr. Buckley explains, arsenic groundwater contamination — typically associated with open pit mining or drilling water wells — is a very real problem for northern and Indigenous communities in Canada, as well as in rural parts of the western U.S., Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and India. It can cause harmful skin lesions and gastric issues, and even cancer in some cases. In Bangladesh alone, it is estimated that exposure to arsenic in drinking water accounts for 20 percent of deaths. 

Whereas existing single-use arsenic test kits cost roughly US$20 and often involve the application of harmful chemicals, the research team hopes to get the cost down to pennies while removing the danger at the same time. In addition to technology review, Green is accessing a vast database of chemical hazards to recommend the safest path forward as the team advances its design.

“Arsenic is a long-term water problem that requires regular testing to keep people safe,” says Dr. Buckley, noting that the lab is focused on a solution that involves molecules that change colour in the presence of arsenic when a light is shone.

The intent is to create a thin film that can be applied to small, watertight vials which would be used to collect water samples. Once full, the vials would clip to a cellphone camera lens, which already has the software necessary to distinguish colours.

“The camera should be able to know, for example, that if the sample turns blue, arsenic is present, and if it stays yellow, the water is safe to drink,” she explains.

Eye-opening, international internship from home

Green is one of 1,075 students — from Brazil, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Mexico, Taiwan, Tunisia, Ukraine, United Kingdom and United States — who are taking part in the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship program in summer 2021. Designed to foster international research links and boost Canada’s economy, the 12-week internship normally entails travel to work alongside Canadian researchers, but the program is currently happening remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Green’s internship is part of a partnership between Mitacs and Fulbright Canada, signed in 2019, which will bring up to 75 senior U.S. undergraduate students over three years to conduct research in Canada.

For her, the opportunity to take part in a global program is eye-opening. Though she regrets missing the opportunity to visit the country in person, she takes part in regular video calls with her Canadian mentors. She also connects with other Mitacs Globalink interns from around the world every Sunday for a virtual meet and greet.

“Being in this program has allowed me to see the slight cultural differences between all of us and appreciate those differences,” says Green, who has never travelled outside of the U.S. but, after participating in the Fulbright Canada–Mitacs Globalink program, now hopes to obtain her PhD at a Canadian university.

“What I’ve learned in these few short weeks has been so valuable, I want to apply it as I move forward with my research and maybe even teach people here in my country the things I’ve learned,” she adds.

Dr. Buckley calls Mitacs Globalink “a great opportunity for researchers in Canada to connect with students from around the world and capitalize on their expertise as they establish strong relationships.”

Ideally, she would have liked Green to be in the lab helping to build sensors for the innovative test kit hands on, but even from afar, the intern’s contribution is proving invaluable. “Andrea’s review is shaping the big picture of where our arsenic test will go as she continues to feed us new ideas and new inspiration,” Dr. Buckley says.

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from valued partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country.

We are also grateful to our international partners. In 2021-2022, Mitacs is pleased to work with partners in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Singapore, Taiwan, Tunisia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States to support Globalink (see full list of partners of the Globalink Research Internship and the Globalink Research Award).

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