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Fighting pollution with nature's tools and faith in interdisciplinary solutions: Professor Satinder Kaur Brar

Fighting pollution with nature's tools and faith in interdisciplinary solutions: Professor Satinder Kaur Brar

York University Professor Satinder Kaur Brar has been passionate about chemistry since her first exposure to the subject during her high school days in India, but it wasn’t until her master’s studies at the National Chemistry Lab in Pune that she had an “A-ha” experience that significantly altered her career path.

While earning her master's in organic chemistry, Brar was doing research in synthetic organic chemistry and was being co-supervised by a senior PhD supervising on reducing side reactions.

“The work involved used a lot of solvent. We recovered it and used 80 per cent of it for two cycles, but then it was down the drain. I asked about the volume in litres of these carcinogenic solvents that we were discarding and the co-supervising PhD had never done the calculations – there was no consideration for the environment," said Brar, the new James and Joanne Love Chair in Environmental Engineering at the Lassonde School of Engineering at York.

“Up to that point, I had planned to do a PhD in organic chemistry, but I decided that I didn’t want to go into a field where I was contributing to contaminating the environment.”

Satinder Kaur Brar
Satinder Kaur Brar

Instead, Brar decided to do an MSc in environmental engineering “to see how I could help solve these challenges.” She studied at the prestigious India Institute of Technology (IIT) in Mumbai, where she was introduced to micro-organisms and “fell in love.” Her fascination with micro-organisms led to a position with the Government of India where she created a database of the contamination caused by testing explosives and explored phyto-remediation using microorganisms found in the roots of trees and plants.

While involved in this work, Brar found that much of the literature published originated from Defence Research and Development Canada in Valcartier, Que. Since she was planning to pursue a PhD, she decided to come to Canada to study. Brar travelled to Vancouver, B.C., to stay with cousins and apply to universities and chose to study in Quebec City, Que. based on the prominence of work by a research group there. She took a crash course in French before the semester began and journeyed east to earn a PhD in biochemical engineering and continue her work with micro-organisms.

After graduation, she began a post-doctoral fellowship at McGill University, but the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) soon tempted her to return to Quebec City as a faculty member. She remained there for 14 years until York lured her east to serve as the James and Joanne Love Chair in Environmental Engineering at the Lassonde School of Engineering.

“I was already a professor, so it was a good time to make a change,” Brar said.

She joined York in 2019, but with the challenge of moving her lab, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Brar hasn’t yet spent much time on campus. She hopes that will change this fall as Ontario begins emerging from lockdown and she is excited to be in Toronto.

“Here, in Toronto, I have access to a large network of academics and industry,” Brar said. “There’s lots of action and dynamism, especially from an environmental perspective.”

Brar is especially eager for the interdisciplinary opportunities offered by being at such a large, comprehensive university as York.

“Environmental challenges are complex and need interdisciplinary action to make them work,” she said. “York provides the kind of environment where I can interact with social scientists, policy experts and marketing people and ensure that research is promoted to the end user.”

Brar is full of enthusiasm for her research and teaching. She is currently immersed in the bioremediation of sites contaminated by petroleum, using enzymes to restore them to health.

“This is a biochemical solution for emergencies,” she said. “We’re using enzymes instead of micro-organisms, because micro-organisms need nutrition to do their job, while enzymes simply need to be formulated. They offer ease of application and are more effective.”

One of her graduate students has just discovered enzymes that are active at core temperatures, and they hope to journey to northern Canada to test them in harsh conditions. In addition, Brar is planning to teach an Introduction to Environmental Engineering course at York’s Las Nubes Eco Campus in Costa Rica next summer, where she hopes to get students involved in some field experiments related to composting, residues management and pineapple cultivation agro-residues value-addition.

Brar says that for students, choosing an institution that will promote their interests and their curiosity is essential.

She also encourages students to be well-rounded, looking beyond their narrow field of specialty to get a broader picture of the world.

“Liberal arts should be part of engineering,” she said. “You can’t be creative just by studying engineering. You need to take courses outside, and a university like York has such breadth, it should be possible.

“It’s important for faculty members, too. Our vice-president of innovation has launched an interdisciplinary cluster network to promote collaboration between faculties. We have all these faculties with excellent researchers and we need to stimulate collaboration, because it’s important. It’s the future. As a force, together we can make an impact.”

Brar has already put her words into action. In June 2021, she was a recipient of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s coveted CREATE (Collaborative Research and Training Experience) award. Her proposal, which also included colleagues from the Faculty of Science, received over $1.6 million to collaborate with industry and communities to convert organic waste into products that are more valuable, reduce our carbon footprint and create a circular bioeconomy. One of the goals of this proposal is also to train a future-ready workforce, be they undergraduates or post-doctoral Fellows.

“Brar is representative of the top global talent working on impactful global solutions York continues to attract,” said Vice-President Research and Innovation Amir Asif. “Her bioremediation research work to recover sites contaminated by petroleum is an example of York’s commitment to environmental sustainability, in particular, the UN Climate Action Sustainable Development Goal.”

She is also well respected at the Lassonde School of Engineering.

“A dedicated research leader in environmental engineering, Brar inspires a deep commitment to environmental stewardship in graduates and colleagues through her important contributions to interdisciplinary teaching and research in sustainable development for climate change adaptation and mitigation,” said Professor John E. Moores, Lassonde’s associate dean, Research and Graduate Studies.

By Elaine Smith, special contributor

Faculty members are invited to share information about global engagement activities – education/learning, research or service – with Skandha Sunderasen at York International,

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York: follow us at @YUResearch; watch the animated video which profiles current research strengths and areas of opportunity, such as artificial intelligence and Indigenous futurities; and see the snapshot infographic, a glimpse of the year’s successes.