At the Newfoundland and Labrador Boreal Ecosystem Latitudinal Transect (NL-BELT) more than two dozen scientists and graduate students from government and academia are analyzing the effect of climate change upon the province’s boreal forests. One of them is Melanie Snow, who graduated with a B.Sc Hons in chemistry this past May from Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) and is heading this September to the University of Toronto to start a master’s degree in environmental chemistry. 

Under the watch of MUN environmental chemist Cora Young, who is one of the NL-BELT’s principle investigators, Snow tested precipitation samples at four different sites, trying to detect polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a group of brominated compounds widely used as flame retardants. The ultimate purpose, says Snow, was to understand the possible transport mechanisms of these compounds, which were recently found in ice core samples from the Devon Ice Cap in Canada’s Arctic. Snow found lower levels of PBDEs in the samples from Newfoundland and Labrador than in the Arctic samples, but discovered an unknown compound — possibly an agricultural fungicide — that she is “really excited about.

“We know these compounds are travelling long distances but the transport mechanisms are misunderstood.” By analyzing how they are travelling: whether by atmospheric air masses, on marine aerosols or through ocean currents, the origin and source of the compound can be determined, Snow says. 

In order to obtain accurate data from the precipitation samples, Snow used gas chromatography coupled to electron capture negative ionization mass spectrometry. She also undertook further analysis at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change laboratory in Toronto, using an atmospheric pressure gas chromatograph mass spectrometer for its enhanced sensitivity and the potential to look for unknown compounds in the samples.  

Snow became part of the MUN research community serendipitously. Following her second year of undergraduate studies she joined a MUN research chemistry lab through the Memorial Undergraduate Career Experience Program (MUCEP). This gave her the chance to undertake complex chemical analysis and work with advanced techniques during transitional metal synthesis. Following second year, Snow worked full-time over the summer in the lab of MUN materials chemist Erika Merschrod. “Every single day I was learning new instrumentation and new procedures.” Snow found a passion for research. “I decided I wanted to pursue chemistry.”

In hindsight, it might be said that chemistry pursued her. Snow’s journey into the sciences was unorthodox. At age 10, she decided that dance was her future. By the time she graduated high school, Snow was a jazz and contemporary dancer and teacher, in addition to teaching ballet and hip hop. After three years in the studio, however, she missed things like math and science, so applied to MUN. Those first-year chemistry classes confirmed that she had made the right choice. “They made me remember how much I loved being in chemistry.” Snow’s passion also led her to embrace extracurricular activities like co-organizer of the Science Atlantic CIC Chemistry Conference, better known as ChemCon, held this past May. She also joined MUN’s Undergraduate Chemistry Society and Women in Science and Engineering, finding inspiration from its members.

Newfoundland is known not only for its spectacular, rugged geography and fishing and aquaculture industry but its offshore oil industry, with three Grand Banks oil fields. (A fourth is set to produce oil later this year.) One of Snow’s summer research projects involved developing portable sensors to detect polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) such as pyrene and phenanthrene, chemicals associated with coal, oil and gas emissions. Similar environmental chemistry studies will be the focus of Snow’s master’s degree at U of T. “I’m fascinated by real-world studies,” she says. “We need to be aware of what we are doing to the environment and what impact it has.”