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Brain power

In Halifax labs, dozens of researchers are working to build a better world. Halifax Magazine shares some of their stories

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Tagging and tracking thousands of animals, 
researchers at Dalhousie’s Ocean Tracking Network are changing how we understand our oceans. Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire. 
Art direction: Suzanne Rent

Tagging and tracking thousands of animals, researchers at Dalhousie’s Ocean Tracking Network are changing how we understand our oceans. Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire. Art direction: Suzanne Rent

World-class research isn’t Halifax’s most visible quality, but scientists in this city are making breakthroughs and discoveries all the time. Here’s a sampling of some fascinating research projects happening right here.

LOVE DOESN’T HAVE TO HURT

Natalie Rosen

Natalie Rosen

For some women it’s not about achieving the perfect orgasm. Sex without intense pain would be good enough. Natalie Rosen is a Dalhousie University professor who runs the Couples and Sexual Health Lab. It’s the only research laboratory in Atlantic Canada researching women experiencing genital pain, and one of the few labs in Canada focusing specifically on couples.

“Vulvodynia is a chronic vulvo-vaginal pain condition and that’s what causes the pain during sex,” Rosen says. “It affects approximately eight to 12 per cent of typically pre-menopausal women.”

Most of the women who participate in research studies at the lab are young and have experienced the pain for as long as they can remember.

While Rosen understands some of the potential risk factors (biological, psychological, social, and genetic) she doesn’t know the cause. She focuses primarily on the psychological and social factors.

“The impact is actually quite wide-reaching,” she says. “It certainly affects all aspects of their sexuality so not only do they experience pain during sex, but you can understand how they might also experience lower sexual desire, difficulties with arousal, difficulties with orgasm, a lower frequency of sex, and lower sexual satisfaction.”

And their partners are impacted as well. Several men report lower sexual satisfaction and erectile difficulties. It has a toll on their relationship: magnifying insecurities, inadequacy and guilt.

“It impacts their quality of life in a wide-reaching way,”Rosen says. She adds that she doesn’t know much about the impact on same-sex couples but it’s something she’d like to explore in the future.

While there’s no cure, there are treatments to help with the pain. “It’s really important because a lot of women suffer in silence from this problem.”

A WEALTH OF COPPER

Four hundred years ago, copper was a big seller in Nova Scotia. To the Mi’kmaq the metal symbolized blood and life. To the Europeans it meant good profits.

By using new geological techniques on unearthed copper artifacts, Saint Mary’s University geology professor Jacob Hanley has unlocked a wealth of new information to more precisely date and locate the copper’s origins. In the past year, Hanley and his team have examined about 60 artifacts in the provincial collection and discovered they came from Sweden in the 1500s.

“It’s an interesting curiosity: well why is it important to Nova Scotia archaeology?” he muses. “Who cares what’s happening in Sweden in the 1500s?” The answer is the Swedes sold it to the French, Spanish and English who traded it to the Mi’kmaq. Hanley has also narrowed down the dates on the artifacts to within 20 to 40 years.

“It’s not something I typically work on but I’m a tenth-generation Canadian and I have aboriginal heritage and I guess I figure if I hadn’t gone into geology I would have gone into archaeology,” he says.  “Having access to equipment allows me to have a hobby within my job.”

Hanley is also about to be very popular in the province’s exploration sector. He’s working on a way to locate gold without having to drill through vast amounts of empty rock. His research using a new Raman microscope involves looking at the chemistry of the fluids trapped in the rock, those same fluids that dropped the gold there in the first place. It also works for oil and gas exploration.

Similar techniques are being used in other countries but it has never been applied to the types of deposits in Nova Scotia. “It’s a new method and there’s no guarantee it will work, but you never know until you test it,” he says. “Companies are desperate for methods that are a little unconventional because the conventional ways we look for gold are just not working for us.”

EYES ON THE OCEAN

One of the largest research projects in Halifax, involving 400 scientists in 14 countries, is a deep surveillance operation.

The Ocean Tracking Network is headquarted at Dalhousie University and partnered with Halifax-based tech company Vemco. They work with scientists to place tracker tags and acoustic receivers on marine animals.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a jellyfish, crab, lobster, or a great white shark. If we could get a tag on it we can track it,” says Fred Whoriskey, executive director.

With a budget of $45 million for the first seven-year phase, OTN launched in 2010. Since then, tens of thousands of animals in 42 species have been tagged. In western Australia, scientists are tagging young white sharks and tracking them for a decade to determine the danger, or lack thereof, they pose to people.

Closer to home, scientists are outfitting grey seals on Sable Island with satellite tags and mobile acoustic receivers to determine if they’re causing problems for cod. “What we’re finding is that’s not happening,” he says. “It doesn’t look like the seals are concentrating on the cod, instead they’re concentrating on a number of hotspot areas where there is a large density of forage fish they can feed on. While they’re there, they’re also encountering tagged tuna, tagged sharks, tagged eels and a few tagged cod.”

In another current project, the OTN is collaborating with a consulting firm to study the migration of crabs and lobsters across the territory where the Maritime Link will be installed. “There’s concern this transmission line is going to have impacts on the migration of lobsters and crabs in there,” Whoriskey says.

SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Rain, snow and more rain aside, there’s a lot going on in Nova Scotia skies. A brand new atmosphere sensing system is about to tell us exactly what kinds of pollutants are hanging out up there.

Infrared radiation is shot out, invisible to the human eye, and bounces back from a mirror capturing all the trace gases caught in its path. Trace gases include ground-level ozone, plus carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide, which are products of combustion.

Wiacek says the system will add a tremendous amount of capability to what we can observe now, substantially improving air quality forecasts. “My current plans are to start some intensive measurement campaigns with it in the summer and we would like to deploy it in Halifax at Saint Mary’s and some Nova Scotia Environment sites to sample vehicular traffic,” she says.

Her team will also lug the system out to Kejimkujik National Park as clean locations can actually produce smog precursors, Wiacek says.

“It’s all very counter-intuitive,” she explains. “A clean place can lead to ozone production in the right conditions or trees can emit gases that are precursors.”

PICTURING THE PROBLEM

Steven Beyea and group.

Steven Beyea and group.

It happens: patients wait for months to get an MRI just to be told afterwards the test didn’t provide enough information for a diagnosis.

Steven Beyea’s research aims to improve diagnostic imaging and save lives. He leads the Biomedical Translational Imaging Centre, a research project involving the QEII, IWK and several corporate partners. His work involves medical imaging, primarily with MRI.

“Part of how I describe it is this is a day and an age computers can play a very significant role… and we do a lot of work in making the images better,” Beyea says. “Equally we do a lot of work in automating these things, so we can bring complicated computer algorithms into this to improve the accuracy of diagnosis.”

Thanks to grants from public and private agencies, the centre is developing new MRI-based diagnostics specifically for brain cancer, fatty liver disease and prostate cancer. Early detection of these diseases can save lives, so can using better information to target treatment. That’s what makes this research so important.

“We can improve the ability to very accurately diagnose, to have it very targeted and specific such that we can guide therapeutic options and improve the outcomes,” he says. “If you’re going to wait all that time to get your MRI, you want every confidence what you are getting is going to give you the most absolute and accurate diagnosis. The work we do plays a role in improving those diagnoses.”  

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