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‘Air that we breathe’

Terra Nova Young Innovator studying link between environmental toxicants and chronic disease

By Jeff Green

An analytical chemist is launching an ambitious research study focused the effects of indoor pollution, the first of its kind in Canada.

Dr. Karl Jobst, assistant professor, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, is the 2021 recipient of the Terra Nova Young Innovator Award, valued at $50,000.

“Canadians spend more than 90 per cent of their time indoors and are exposed to a wide range of chemical pollutants, including small plastic particles coined nanoplastics, by inhaling indoor dust,” Dr. Jobst explained during an interview with the Gazette.

Nanoplastic particles have diameters of one nanometre to one micron.

To put that into perspective, that’s less than one millionth of a millimetre and roughly 100-100,000 times smaller than what can be observed by the human eye.

These particles are light enough to remain airborne and tiny enough that when inhaled, they can enter the bloodstream via the lungs and accumulate in other organs.

“There is growing concern that these exposures can potentially cause adverse health effects, including lung cancer,” said Dr. Jobst.

“Nevertheless, the occurrence of nanoplastics in indoor air and their potential health effects remain unknown. The Terra Nova Young Innovator Award will enable our group to create novel analytical methods that can address a critical gap in our knowledge of the occurrence of nanoplastics, and the extent to which we are exposed to these particles by inhalation.”

Expand his research

Dr. Jobst is using high-tech equipment and a technique known as ion mobility-mass spectrometry to get a better picture of the tiny particles.

“With the help of the Terra Nova Young Innovator Award, I will have access to state-of-the-art instrumentation.” — Dr. Karl Jobst

He says while the mass of a molecule can be used to identify its elements, the shape of a molecule is related to its biological effects and environmental behaviour.

He says the Terra Nova Young Innovator Award allows him to expand his research program into a new area that takes aim at plastics pollution.

Smiling, Dr. Jobst wears a light blue shirt and a tie.
Dr. Karl Jobst
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“The award will allow my group to obtain instrumentation that will enable the identification of nanoplastics in the air that we breathe.”

Innovative ideas

The Terra Nova Young Innovator Award is presented to exceptional young faculty members whose research is particularly innovative and whose specific proposal has real potential to make a significant impact on society.

The award is supported through $50,000 in funding from Suncor, on behalf of the partners in the Terra Nova oil field.

Dr. Neil Bose, vice-president (research), says the contributions of Suncor and its partners provide early-career researchers critical support to tackle real-life problems.

“Through our longstanding collaboration, young innovators such as Dr. Jobst have the opportunity to pursue important research to benefit people around the globe. I thank our industry partners for their foundational investments for visionary research.”

Opening doors

For his part, Dr. Jobst says its “humbling” to receive the award and follow in the footsteps of other colleagues.

“Previous recipients have established themselves as leading experts in their respective fields,” noted Dr. Jobst, who joined Memorial in late 2019. He says establishing a research lab in the midst of Snowmageddon and the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging.

“It’s been a crazy time to start up a lab, and I am indebted to my colleagues and collaborators at Memorial for their mentorship, guidance and support through it all,” he noted, adding the award will help open doors to future collaborations with researchers.

“Memorial has provided me with world class research space and, with the help of the Terra Nova Young Innovator Award, I will have access to state-of-the-art instrumentation.”

More about the Terra Nova Young Innovator Award, as well its criteria and terms of reference, is available online.


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