March 17, 2017 | Volunteer & Awards

Getting hands-on with microbes

Elizabeth Edwards wins a 2017 Faculty Award for outstanding teaching and research

Elizabeth Edwards wins a 2017 Faculty Award for outstanding teaching and research

It’s the magic of chemistry – combine two substances and they transform into a third that’s completely different. Elizabeth Edwards, a pioneering researcher in the field of environmental engineering, makes this magic with microbes and contaminated water, cleaning hard-to-access underground reservoirs of pollutants naturally and safely.

For this pioneering research, which also demonstrates the best in cross-disciplinary collaboration, and for her outstanding teaching, Edwards, who is the Canada Research Chair in Anaerobic Biotechnology and a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, is being honoured with a 2017 Faculty Award. The annual prize recognizes U of T teaching staff who consistently demonstrate all-around excellence in both their scholarly work and in the classroom.

The water research flows from a groundbreaking discovery Edwards made: that microbes in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment can break down benzene and similar harmful chemicals. She went on to develop a culture of several microbes, called KB-1, which combine with dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethene and industrial degreaser trichloroethene to form harmless, non-chlorinated ethene and salt. She’s already working on similar solutions for pesticide and benzene contamination with SiREM, the spin-off company that her industrial colleagues founded in 2002.

Edwards’ peers say this innovative work not only represents a new paradigm in bioengineering, but it has made U of T the Canadian leader in environmental microbial biotechnology. So far, KB-1 has been used successfully to accelerate cleanup at more than 400 sites worldwide. To continue to disseminate results on useful biotechnologies, Edwards and colleagues founded a research and training centre at U of T. BioZone brings together more than 100 faculty, students and industrial partners from a range of disciplines, and includes an active commercialization committee.

As BioZone’s Director, Edwards guides students in the lab as well as in the classroom. There are hardly enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe their enthusiasm for her leadership. They love that she always shares the latest exciting news from the field, that she always lets them in on the story behind the discovery of each concept, and the way she excels at linking theory with real-life results.

“I found I learned a whole lot better when I went and saw a pump in action, or looked down a microscope,” says Edwards. So she typically sends her introductory microbiology students out looking for objects to swab for microbes, from toilet handles to the cafeteria hot dogs. “It worked for me,” she says, crediting one of her professors at McMaster University, Philip Wood, who was famous for his classroom props. “Props and demos, things that students can touch and feel, work better than books and even visual media.”

Edwards has supervised more than 50 graduate students since coming to U of T in 1997. She’s also achieved an H-index of 41, outstanding for a scholar two decades into their career, with more than 100 publications and 6,600 citations. She’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, has received numerous awards (from the NSERC Synergy Award for Innovation to the Killam Prize in Engineering) and co-founded two companies: Savant Technical Consulting and Ambione Inc, which is building links with Brazilian scientists.

Her unique work has managed to connect two fields, engineering and microbiology, that are usually kept separate. A generous scientific collaborator and mentor, her ability to launch fruitful cross-disciplinary collaborations inspires her peers. “There are so many reasons why collaboration is important,” she says. “There’s so much to know and nobody can know it all. So you have to rely on others and get their perspective. When you juggle between being too broad and being too specific and get a bit of both, when you find people who are willing to get out of their comfort zone, then you get different ideas and can really take it to other outcomes.”

Watch Elizabeth Edwards explain how microbes can clean water:

The Faculty Award honouring excellence in research and teaching is presented each year under the banner of the Awards of Excellence, a program recognizing the outstanding members of the University of Toronto community who have made rich and meaningful contributions to the University, their communities and to the world.

Alumni Relations within the Division of University Advancement is the steward of the Awards of Excellence program on behalf of the University of Toronto Alumni Association, and co-ordinates the vital contributions of other University stakeholder groups toward this prestigious award program.

Professor Elizabeth Edwards and the other 2017 Awards of Excellence recipients will be honoured at a recognition event on April 27.

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