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‘MIPing’ the ocean 

Post-doctoral scholar creates low cost, efficient water analysis

Research

By Susan Flanagan

Stefana Egli is so excited about her polymer coating that she carries a little glass slide wherever she goes.

“It’s like my baby,” she said, fishing one out of her pocket.

The “baby” is more commonly known as a MIP, or molecularly imprinted polymer, that allows for portable cost-effective water analysis. When exposed to water, the MIP, which is smaller than a quarter, can absorb certain compounds that normally dissolve in water.

Dr. Stefana Egli holds up her MIP in the lab
Dr. Stefana Egli holds up her MIP in the laboratory.
Photo: Susan Flanagan

“Normally when you’re analyzing for oil in water, you take a one-litre sample and bring it to a lab. With a MIP you can sample directly on site, using portable detectors, reducing costs and man hours,” said Dr. Egli, explaining that the MIP is of interest to the oil and gas industry as the polymer coatings can be used to assist in oil cleanup operations.

“The MIP can be deployed using a remotely operated vehicle if sampling is required in remote or inaccessible areas. This environmentally sensitive alternative to water sampling costs one-tenth of current methods,” said Dr. Egli, who came to Newfoundland and Labrador in 2009 from Durban, South Africa, where she graduated from the University of KwaZulu Natal with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and environmental science.

International appeal

Originally from Romania, Dr. Egli says many factors played a role in her decision to choose Memorial to pursue a master’s degree in analytical chemistry. One of the biggest was affordability.

“Memorial had some of the lowest international student fees, as well as access to a graduate student stipend,” said Dr. Egli. “There’s a drive to prove that newcomers are worth the investment . . . to show the value we bring to Canada.”

Dr. Egli also acknowledges her chemistry research professor in the Faculty of Science, Dr. Christina Bottaro, whose group she has worked with since she completed her PhD in 2014, was another feather in Memorial’s cap.

“When I arrived I was not as self-assured as now.” — Dr. Stefana Egli

“Christina has been amazing . . . at giving me opportunities to try new things and get out of my comfort zone,” Dr. Egli said, adding she had no idea she’d fast track to a PhD within a year of her arrival in St. John’s. “I really appreciate her trust and support. When I arrived I was not as self-assured as now. I have Christina to thank for helping me build confidence as a scientist.”

Provincial scholarship

Dr. Egli also says the provincial government was instrumental in her smooth transition to her doctoral studies by providing funding to pursue ocean industries-related studies and research and allowed her to travel to meet people involved in similar work.

“I want to thank the provincial government for believing in me,” said Dr. Egli. “There are not many scholarships that reward international students.”

Dr. Stefana Egli and her fellow researchers in the lab
Fellow researchers in Dr. Stefana Egli’s laboratory.
Photo: Susan Flanagan

Dr. Egli, along with Drs. Christina Bottaro, Kelly Hawboldt and Carlos Bazan, recently received a combined $1,184,290 in federal-provincial support in March 2017 through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to develop MIP-based systems for water quality assessment.

Dr. Egli stresses that this collaborative approach as well as the current funding and a larger Atlantic Innovation Fund project — Sensing System for Detection and Tracking of Oil in Marine Waters in Harsh Climates — that ran from 2012-16, have been essential to the group’s success.

Commercialization process

To acquire the necessary skills and understanding to commercialize the MIP, Dr. Egli went through the Evolution Program with the Genesis Centre and came first in their Pitch & Pick competition.

“I want to acknowledge the Genesis Centre, MoTR (MaRS on the Rock), and the Entrepreneurship Training Program. Without them, I would not be at the stage I am now with incorporating a spin-off company.”

“Stefana’s success is a testament to her dedication and hard work,” said Angelo Casanas, director, programs and partnerships, with the Genesis Centre. “The team from Genesis is happy to have played role in supporting world-class talent like Stefana in commercializing MIP.”

In December 2016 Drs. Egli and Bottaro were awarded a $248,400 provincial ArcticTECH grant to translate the MIP into a market-ready product. The result: Intelligent Materials, a Memorial spin-off company Dr. Egli recently incorporated with Dr. Ali Modir Rousta, who also completed his PhD with Dr. Bottaro and opened N.L. Pita, a bakery on O’Leary Avenue, in 2014.

“The Office of the Vice-President (Research) through the Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office has worked with Stefana and Ali in commercializing results from their research at Memorial and we are excited that Intelligent Materials will continue to be a partner with Memorial in future applied R&D,” said Dr. Ray Gosine, vice-president (research) pro tempore.


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