Big ideas

Illustration by Russell Jackson

Thanks to a critical mass of universities, Halifax punches far above its weight as a centre for research and innovation. Halifax Magazine talks with a few university researchers whose curiosity is reshaping their respective fields.


Dr. Ahsan Habib, Dalhousie University, transportation

What’s a quick way to rile up Haligonians? Mention transportation along our historic city streets.
Dr. Ahsan Habib has established what he calls a transportation “collaboratory” with the help of a recent $200,000 Leader’s Opportunity Grant from Canada Foundation of Innovation.
The collaboratory brings together Dalhousie University civil engineering students as well as students from the Dalhousie School of Planning, the first of its kind in Nova Scotia.
“Our main job is to collect transportation data,” Habib explains, “where you go, how you go … and try to understand, and try to model mathematically to explain why you do it. Then try to plan accordingly for sustainable transportation planning.”
They’ve placed wireless sensors on roadways to collect 24/7 traffic data in critical intersections. They’re also collecting travel surveys in traditional ways and through smart phone apps using GPS. “Transportation modelling is about … forecasting the future of traffic networks,” he says. “The city assumes certain kind of growth in certain areas, but [our] model can tell you in the next 15 years what the congestion level will be like.”
Habib has several funded projects of a total of about $1 million from various departments in the province, as well as Halifax Regional Municipality.
“Halifax is an interesting living laboratory for transportation research. It’s a historical town. It has narrow roads, but also positive attitudes. We have a lot of potential,” he says.
Habib and his students can even estimate what will be the greenhouse gas emissions of cars in Halifax. Within the next five years, they could map the exposure of those emissions. “That’s the beauty of micro-simulation,” he says. “If we know emissions at Barrington and Spring Garden, then we can put how many people will be exposed to that emission. That’s how this kind of modelling is cutting edge.”


Dr. Jeremy Lundholm, Saint Mary’s University, Plant ecology of green roofs

Plant ecologist Jeremy Lundholm and his students are leading the first university-led green roof research in Atlantic Canada at Saint Mary’s University.
A roof of a building that is partially or completely covered with vegetation is called a green roof. They began in Scandinavia centuries ago, but gained strength in Germany in the 1960s. Green roofs have since popped up in other places, including Canada.
Lundholm and company have four green roofs in Halifax—two at the university and two off campus. Green roofs trap stormwater, preventing it from entering storm drains and treatment systems. They keep buildings cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Green roofs purify the air and create habitats for insects and animals that may otherwise have their environments replaced by concrete.
Generally, green roofs are made up of sedums, or succulent plants not native to Nova Scotia. Lundholm and his students have tested about 30 different types of Nova Scotian plants. About 20 have shown success. “We’re using these plants that grow in these really harsh environments—windswept, shallow soil, poor nutrients,” Lundholm says. “Do we gain any advantage by having a whole bunch of species up on the roof, versus just one type?”
They’re working with the University of Western Ontario and University of Calgary, testing green roofs using the same plants, in the same soil in three Canadian cities—Halifax, London and Calgary—with three different climates. Evidence already shows not every plant is suited for every location.
Lundholm’s research is funded by The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), a strategic grant of $100,000 over three years. He publishes his findings in academic journals and shares it with interested industry partners—architects, engineers, contractors and governments.
It’s been a challenge to find suitable buildings on which to build a green roof in Halifax. “Old buildings, roofs aren’t in good shape, and many aren’t up to current building codes,” Lundholm says. “I think it’s going to take incentives and it’s something the municipality would have to believe in. We need to start dealing with this.”


Dr. Boris Worm, Dalhousie University, Marine Biodiversity

Jaws. Shark Week. Sharknado. The public has been bitten with curiosity of everything sharks.
Dr. Boris Worm is ahead of the trends. He’s been studying sharks for 10 years and marine biodiversity for 18 years.
“My main research is marine biodiversity, which means all of the species that live in the ocean, why they really aggregate in some areas and not so much in others,” he says.
Worm and his students study the changing of marine biodiversity over time. The research receives about $150,000 in research grants from The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
And as mentioned, sharks fascinate him.
According to Worm, sharks are among the oldest marine species, existing for about 400 million years, twice as long as dinosaurs, and survived five mass extinctions. So, why are sharks so important?
Sharks control the ecosystem from the top. “They’re like the police,” he says. “They tend to keep everybody on their toes. They have a really strongly effect, just by their presence.”
Sharks only produce a small number of pups, and they’re naive, Worm says, making them easily caught and vulnerable to mortality. Humans have become the shark’s enemy. “It’s very well documented that where fisheries expand, the number of sharks drops,” he says. Worm talks to people in the fishing industry. Catching sharks can ruin gear, creating problems for fisherman economically. He says fishermen love marine life and are receptive to solutions.
Worm works to raise awareness about the ocean and how to look after it. Dalhousie introduced its first shark class in 2013. Students went out on the water and tagged sharks.
Worm hosts a column on CBC Radio, and visits high schools. He’s also working with the National Film Board in creating interactive videos called Ocean School for children. “Half the oxygen that we breathe … comes from land plants and half of it comes from the sea,” he says. “So you have to thank the ocean for every second breath.”


The Community Conservation Research Network, headed by Dr. Anthony Charles at Saint Mary’s University, is a year-old group of professors, students, community initiatives and government resources in Halifax, nationally and internationally, works to solve various environmental issues in communities.
Dr. Rituparna Kanungo is a Saint Mary’s University physicist studying rare isotopes that can’t be found on Earth that may assist in fighting cancer.
Dr. Susie Brigham, a researcher at Mount Saint Vincent University, is exploring immigrants’ experiences within the immigration system. Brigham uses photography to explore experiences of individuals whose first language is not English.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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