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Scientist's path-breaking work to protect environment wins international award

Professor Barbara Sherwood Lollar uses carbon isotopes in groundwater to determine its degree of pollution (photo by Derek Shapton)

University of Toronto geochemist Barbara Sherwood Lollar is receiving the prestigious Eni Award for the Protection of the Environment, in recognition of her world-leading research in groundwater contamination.

The award, to be presented on June 15th in Rome by the President of the Italian Republic, includes a gold medal crafted by the Italian state mint.

"On behalf of the University of Toronto research community, congratulations to Professor Sherwood Lollar," said Professor Peter Lewis, associate vice-president, research at U of T. "Given her tremendous excellence and innovation in environmental research over the past number of years, she is most deserving of this high honour.  We are most thankful to the Eni review panel for recognizing Barbara’s leadership."

Sherwood Lollar leads a research group that developed an effective way to monitor the clean-up of contaminated groundwater using naturally occurring isotopes of carbon. Measured in groundwater samples, these isotopes indicate whether dangerous pollutants such as dry cleaning fluids or petroleum hydrocarbons are breaking down into more benign substances.

Her technique has been widely disseminated and is the subject of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidance white paper for groundwater management.

"I am deeply grateful to Eni for their generosity and support for this research undertaken to safeguard water resources through the development of new scientific approaches and techniques to optimize environmental remediation and clean-up," said Sherwood Lollar. "And I have been lucky indeed to work with an extraordinary bunch of students and colleagues at U of T.

"I think one of the reasons for the great appeal of this area of environmental research to young people in particular is that it starts with an essential foundation of pure, discovery-driven research in geology, chemistry and biology," she said, "but with direct linkages to the real world challenges facing industry and society."

A University Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences (formerly the Department of Geology), Sherwood Lollar is director of the Stable Isotope Laboratory and Canada Research Chair in Isotopes of the Earth and Environment.  She is a world leader in the innovative use of compound-specific stable isotope techniques to track the source and fate of organic contaminants in groundwater and to investigate the source and fate of CO2 in sedimentary basins and natural carbon sequestration settings.

In this area of her research, Sherwood Lollar’s research group collaborates extensively with industrial partners, consultants and regulators in both Canada and the United States.

"The Eni Award is a real testament to the interdisciplinary nature of this science," Sherwood Lollar said. "Addressing the challenges of global environmental change and the implications for human health, for society and for the economy, requires that pure and applied research complement and enhance each other."

Her work also addresses the identification of subsurface gases, such as methane and hydrogen, in deep groundwater in the oldest rocks on Earth, as well as investigation of biogeochemical cycling by deep subsurface microbial communities. 

The award is the latest in a series of honours for Sherwood Lollar, including a Steacie Fellowship and Accelerator Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and a Killam Fellowship from the Canada Council.  She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and, in 2000, Time magazine named her one of 25 leaders for the 21st century.

Established in 2007, the Eni Awards encourage the improved use of energy and recognize outstanding research and innovation in the protection and restoration of the environment.  The award’s scientific review panel includes Nobel Laureates and scientists from leading centres such as Stanford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University of Parma, Universite de Versailles, Cornell and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

May 25, 2012