Splitting hairs: The intersection of lasers, bears, and environmental management

September 14, 2011

Part one of our Stantec R&D Fund 10th Anniversary Series takes us into the belly fur of the beast


During her Master’s degree, she watched frog spermatozoa swim across a screen for hours to discover how metals affect sperm motility. As a Ph.D. student, she ran around the bush collecting bear scats, studying them for contaminants. Before joining Stantec, she came face-to-face with a grizzly bear. And while she worked at Stantec, her career took off, thanks in large part to our Research & Development (R&D) fund, part of our Creativity & Innovation Program.

“The fund has raised my profile within Stantec, opening the door to collaboration and opportunities,” says Dr. Jennie Christensen, former Environmental Services principal. “And it has helped me do what I love: researching contaminants in wildlife.”

That passion helped Jennie develop a new way of analyzing grizzly bear hair. “Conventional approaches tell you nothing about when or how the bear was exposed to contaminants,” says Jennie. “Was it a single high dose? Gradual exposure over time? Diet-related?” Jennie’s research lets her use laser technology to tell a much broader story.



To understand her research, you need to know four things:

  1. Because they eat both meat and plants, bears provide a window into both land and water ecosystem health. Eating contaminated food supplies, including staples like berries, shrubs, and salmon, can potentially lead to toxic effects.
  2. Hair provides a way of measuring a bear’s (or any mammal’s) contaminant exposure in its food supply. This information gets chronologically locked into the hair as it grows.
  3. No bears are harmed in the process. Jennie retrieves bear hair samples from marking trees and hair snares, or from legally hunted or captured problem bears.
  4. By burning and scanning along a strand of hair with a laser and analyzing the gas released—a process called laser ablation—environmental scientists can measure concentrations of metals and other elements that the animal was exposed to over the length of time it took the hair strand to grow.

“Instead of getting one concentration of a metal from a strand of hair, we can get 3,000. This means we can find out what a grizzly has been exposed to, day by day, over an eight-month period,” Jennie says.



How laser ablation  works 
A laser burns through a single strand of grizzly bear hair, releasing gas. This gas is measured for concentrations of metals such as mercury (see graph on right), giving a day-by-day account of a grizzly bear’s eating habits over an eight-month period. For example, the increases in mercury indicate greater salmon consumption.

Applying the research
Jennie started by applying laser ablation to the mining sector. “Understanding a bear’s habitat use, diet, and health is important for the overall success of an environmental assessment,” she says. “This tool helps us monitor a mine’s impact on at-risk species like the grizzly throughout the mine’s life cycle.”

Since completing her initial research on bears, Jennie has expanded to other mammals, birds, and even humans. She is collaborating with her toxicology colleague in Stantec’s Saskatoon office, Dr. Jean-Michel DeVink. They are using this research technique to help clients find answers to complicated questions about the health implications of a project on human and wildlife populations. For example:

  • A company planning a major pipeline is integrating the laser technique into their long-term environmental monitoring programs for grizzly bears, muskrats, and beavers
  • Operators of a hydroelectric facility are monitoring baseline mercury exposure in osprey and river otters prior to soil inundation
  • Mine operators are looking into using the technique on human hair to monitor employee exposure to lead, cadmium, and zinc
  • Canadian history buffs will learn if lead poisoning contributed to a historical mystery, thanks to laser ablation on a toenail sample from a Franklin Expedition crewman who died in January 1846.

“Taking research to a new level and selling it to a client—that’s exciting,” says Jennie. Together with Jean-Michel, the pair is investigating the use of other tissues for biomonitoring for client projects, including whiskers, claws, teeth, shells, and bones.

But “who cares?”
When Jennie joined Stantec in 2011, the R&D program caught her eye almost immediately. “After years of trying to find funding for the grizzly bear study, it took just a few months at Stantec to finally be able to put my theory to the test,” says Jennie. “Without the support I received from Stantec’s leadership, I know my career would not be where it is today. I enjoy working with clients to provide a service no other consultant can.”

Jennie is now a three-time recipient of Stantec’s R&D grants (now called Greenlight). She has presented her findings at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) conference in 2014, and the Nunavut Mining Symposium in 2016.

As Jennie sees it, research starts with a simple question. “When I look at a research opportunity, my number one question is ‘Who cares?’” she says. “I know I care, but why should my clients care? What are their concerns and how can a research project help alleviate or eliminate them? If you know that, you can figure out how to twist your passion into something that can help.”


About this article
In 2017, Stantec celebrated the 10th anniversary of our Research and Development (R&D) Fund—now called Greenlight. Through Greenlight, Stantec invests $2 million annually into our employees’ big ideas, with half the funds earmarked for scientific R&D initiatives. Greenlight is part of our Creativity & Innovation Program, which nurtures the efforts of our people to apply any idea that benefits us, our clients, or our communities, and enhances our reputation, competitive position, and ultimately our financial performance. In the coming months, we’ll be profiling 10 of our R&D grant recipients and their work, so check back often for more stories.


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