Dr. Cathy Eimers sees herself as something of a water physician, taking blood from a watershed’s veins to determine the health of the system. She takes water samples from streams and rivers that feed into lakes, focusing largely on nutrients (e.g. nitrogen and phosphorus) that affect water quality.
Ensuring research has a real-world impact
The newly appointed associate director of the Trent School of the Environment, Professor Eimers is finding renewed purpose in her work by applying scientific discoveries in the real world with community partners, such as Kawartha Conservation, and other water practitioners.
Water practitioners—local conservation authorities, government scientists at the Ministries of the Environment or Natural Resources—have an interest in the health of the watershed. Like many researchers, Prof. Eimers maintains relationships with people who have the power to improve the health of water systems, ensuring the findings of her research team are taken into account.
“We work with farmers all the time. They let us on their fields to sample soils and tile drainage water. It’s important to maintain that relationship,” said Prof. Eimers. “Most farmers I work with are very good stewards of their land. They want the soil to be healthy and they don't want nutrients leaching off their sites because that's costing them money.”
With a team of undergraduate and graduate student researchers, Prof. Eimers is able to give farmers information that can influence how they manage their land. She can see, for instance, when fertilizer is applied in dry periods or before plant roots are established enough to suck up the nutrients—the nitrogen fertilizer goes straight into a tile drain and out into the creek.
Trent Experimental Farm supports testing of advanced farming techniques
On the academic side of research, Prof. Eimers and her team are taking the farm-management lessons learned from monitoring watersheds to the Trent Experimental Farm.
At the Experimental Farm, researchers can control and test farming practices. Prof. Eimers can choose which plots to plant when, how much fertilizer to use on each, then she can measure outcomes and provide this information to farmers and other water practitioners.
She is also instituting the use of calibrated drain tiles to control the flow of water under the ground. Typical drain tiles are pipes that run about a metre under the ground and funnel water from the soil into ditches and drains. They are significant sources of unwanted nutrients that enter waterways. By using calibrated drain tiles, Prof. Eimers and the team at the Experimental Farm are able to identify management practices that minimize nutrient losses.
Building knowledge that is useful to community members is a value that Prof. Eimers wants to pass on to the students in her lab. That’s another way she ensures her work has an impact.
“Students genuinely value when you are able to tell them, ‘This is why it matters’. They like to hear that they're going to learn something that will have an influence on practice. And they also really like the idea of interacting with water practitioners and making those job connections.”