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Canada Barbara Sherwood Lollar, diviner of ancient water, wins top Canadian science prize

Dr. Sherwood Lollar’s work has won her the Herzberg gold medal, Canada’s top prize for non-medical research.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It was a telltale smell that led Barbara Sherwood Lollar to the discovery of a lifetime.

“Not skunky, but musty,” said the University of Toronto geochemist, describing the sulphur-tinged aroma she perceived wafting through a section of the Kidd Creek Mine near Timmins, Ont., in 2009.

By following her nose in the dark, she eventually found the spot that confirmed her suspicions. It was water, and not just ordinary water. As detailed analyses would later reveal, it was essentially the oldest known water in the world, sitting isolated beneath the Canadian Shield for more than a billion years.

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The quest to understand that water and its origins has become a cornerstone of Dr. Sherwood Lollar’s work, but it is only one part of a scientific career that spans three decades and ranges from studies of environmental contamination to the search for life on Mars.

Now, Dr. Sherwood Lollar’s work has won her the Herzberg gold medal, Canada’s top prize for non-medical research. Bestowed annually by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the prize guarantees $1-million in research funding over the next five years.

Dr. Sherwood Lollar is only the second woman to win the award in its 28-year history. She will be honoured along with other prizewinners at a ceremony in Ottawa on Monday.

“It couldn’t have gone to a more fantastic scientist,” said Chris Ballentine, a collaborator and chair of geochemistry at Oxford University.

As the daughter of two historians at Queen’s University in Kingston, Dr. Sherwood Lollar’s passion for science made her something of a rebel in a family focused on the humanities.

Yet, it was her parents who planted the seeds of her scientific interest by encouraging her to read Jules Verne’s classic adventure novels, including Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Speaking in her lab, surrounded by equipment she built to discern the chemical fingerprints of water in different settings, Dr. Sherwood Lollar said it was the urge to explore that drew her to science.

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“When I look back now I realize that the moments I get most excited about our science results are those moments when it feels like we’re found a secret, something no one has seen before,” she said.

Her enthusiasm was further fuelled during her undergraduate years at Harvard University where she was inspired by professors such as paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, among other well-known figures in Earth science. She went on to pursue a PhD at the University of Waterloo with a focus on groundwater.

These bottles of water are from Timmins and are one billion years old.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The subject had obvious practical applications but it also introduced her to the techniques that would become crucial to her later scientific work, including how to probe water by using the trace elements and molecules that revealed something about its origins and history.

A stint at Cambridge University cemented her fascination with underground water, both near the surface and far below, and introduced her to a community of researchers that was beginning to probing the complex story of water found in unexpected places, particularly in deep mines around the world.

By the time she landed a position at the University of Toronto in the early 1990s, Dr. Sherwood Lollar was eager to see what her own country’s ancient geology might reveal – and she had a useful in.

“Here I was suddenly walking the halls with the scientists who had trained every mine manager in Canada,” she said.

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She was soon drawn to the Timmins area, where the bedrock shows evidence of its fiery beginnings as curling chunks of lava extruded onto a long-vanished ocean floor. By then it was clear that in South Africa and elsewhere, water was turning up with chemical signatures that suggested it had been sitting in the rock for millions of year. Dr. Sherwood Lollar had a hunch that what she was seeing in Ontario was even older and, in time, the chemistry would prove her right.

“Absolutely groundbreaking,” Dr. Ballantine said of her discovery of free flowing water in the Kidd Creek Mine with chemical signatures older than one billion years.

Based on multiple lines of evidence, it now appears that the water hosts a microbial community that is eking out a living by drawing its energy from chemical reactions. The find has informed Dr. Sherwood Lollar’s work with researchers at the U.S. space agency, NASA, to help advance the search for life on Mars and other potential environments around the solar system.

All of this has unfolded in parallel with Dr. Sherwood Lollar’s other line of scientific work, developing techniques for analyzing the chemistry of water near the surface and tracking how contaminants from industrial sites may or may not be broken down by bacteria and finding solutions for environmental remediation.

Jennifer McKelvie, a Toronto city councillor who earned her PhD in Dr. Sherwood Lollar’s lab, said her former supervisor was an ideal mentor who remains deeply committed to her students’ success.

“What I learned from her is the ability to form partnerships, to bring people together that might not otherwise work together,” she said.

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Last month, Dr. Sherwood Lollar’s ability to create scientific partnerships received a vote of confidence from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research when they selected her to co-lead an international program of exploration of the deep Earth that builds on her previous work.

Dr. Sherwood Lollar said the most important quality to develop as a scientist – and one she tries to instill in her students – is the resilience to keep pushing ahead despite self-doubt, challenges and barriers. Some of those barriers are specific to women, she added, including salary gaps and other forms of systemic bias for female researchers trying to advance to leadership roles in science.

“There are places where the needle still isn’t shifting,” she said. “A lot of people have been opening doors, but I think that perhaps what we’re recognizing as a society is that some of the things inside of those doors need to change too.”

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