A glimpse into the world of Feiyue Wang, this year’s winner of our Environment Division R&D Dima Award
Feiyue Wang, MCIC vividly recalls the first time a Twin Otter airplane neatly deposited him on the Arctic sea ice next to the Amundsen, Canada’s research icebreaker. It was 2008 and Wang – an experienced aquatic chemist used to working with flowing water – looked out the window and felt suddenly humble. He saw a still and frigid landscape, both beguiling and utterly alien.
“I’d read up on the place but when we landed, I thought ‘I know nothing about this world,’” recalls Wang. “I was excited, but also intimidated.”
Fast forward 13 years, and the University of Manitoba chemist is one of Canada’s foremost experts on how mercury behaves in the Arctic – in particular how methylation transforms the element from its inorganic to organic form, and how it builds up in the bodies of the north’s sea creatures.
Figuring this out is important because mercury can cause reproductive problems in some animals, and in the people who eat those animals, neurological damage and slowed infant development.
That’s why Wang created the university’s ultra-clean lab for experimenting with the behaviour of trace amounts of elements such as mercury, cadmium, zinc and lead. He even built a swimming pool-sized sea ice environmental research facility. The first of its kind in Canada, the outdoor pool allows researchers across the country and around the world to study theories about how sea ice formation affects chemical contaminants.
“Every year we put sea water in the pool and wait for Mother Nature to form the ice,” says Wang. “It’s my big beaker.”
His colleague, aquatic biogeochemist Robie Macdonald, says it’s a good example of Wang’s infectious enthusiasm and interest in all things geochemical. It also demonstrates his eagerness to work on hard problems.
“Taking advantage of Winnipeg’s reputation for a bitingly cold winter seems somehow the ultimate in turning a challenge into an advantage,” says Macdonald. “We don’t have talent scouts in the science business, but if we did, I’m sure they would have targeted Fei as a person to draft onto their team.”
From Beijing to Quebec
Trained as an environmental geochemist at Beijing’s Peking University, Wang came to Canada in 1996 as a post-doc research fellow to study sediment contamination in Quebec’s boreal lakes. He followed this up with stint as an NSERC industrial research fellow in Vancouver before finding his niche at the University of Manitoba in 2000.
That’s when he drifted into snow and ice chemistry research. “As a freshwater chemist, I never thought I’d go to the Arctic Ocean,” recalls Wang. “I was dragged in by my collaborators who needed a chemist.”
One of his collaborators, David Barber – an expert on the behaviour of Arctic sea ice – says the rapid rate of climate change in the Arctic is opening it to development and exploitation, requiring stewardship, sustainability, and Indigenous reconciliation. Chemists such as Wang are a necessary part of the equation.
“His research is at the centre of this nation-building exercise,” says Barber. “He integrates knowledge of cold region contaminants (mercury, POPS, hydrocarbons, etc.) with other natural, social, medical, and Indigenous knowledge holders into transdisciplinary approaches to strong policy development and technological innovation.”
One of the complex questions Wang is helping to answer is how climate change affects the bioaccumulation of mercury in belugas and other Arctic wildlife. Rising temperatures in the Arctic activate the microbes that help methylate mercury, turning it into a form more easily taken up by living creatures.
So it would seem logical to assume more methylation of mercury and more bioaccumulation in local wildlife. But as Wang points out, the Arctic is changing in other ways and it’s not so simple.
Melting glaciers are adding more freshwater to the ocean and new warmer water species are moving north, changing the food web. The complicated interplay of such changes means that in some areas of the Arctic, belugas have higher mercury concentrations, and in some areas lower.
“The lesson here is that it’s not just about chemistry,” says Wang. “There are so many competing processes happening.”
Pulling out all the stops for students
While mercury in the Arctic is Wang’s main focus, he’s an enthusiastic supporter and sometimes collaborator on his students’ passion projects. University of Manitoba master’s student Ainsleigh Loria decided to do her thesis with Wang after he helped steer her to a project “perfectly tailored to my interests and background.” She is studying mercury in historical silver amalgamation wastes in Guanajuato, Mexico.
Loria says she was especially impressed with her supervisor’s willingness to take on the hard work of collecting data when he accompanied her to Guanajuato in 2019 to help with her field work. He worked long days and was always game for scaling steep mountain sides to collect data, says Loria.
“He even insisted that we obtain extra data, which was beyond the scope of our original intended work. The opportunity presented itself and he was very curious,” says Loria.
“This curiosity is part of what makes him an excellent scientist. He is a great mentor that truly is passionate about science. That ensures that he is available to provide his students with support when they need it, but also gives them the autonomy necessary to grow as scientists.”
Congratulations to Wang for winning the CIC’s Environment Division Research and Development Dima Award.