Students Earn University Credit for Summer Course

By Kathryn Burnham
August 29, 2012

Sean Phippen focuses on his measurements to test daphnia for exposure to toxins. Photo by KATHRYN BURNHAMWhile most students are busy preparing for the new school year and soaking up every last second of summer vacation, one group of dedicated learners are already getting back in gear, taking their last two weeks of summer to squeeze in one more credit — on ecotoxicology.

The St. Lawrence River Institute is hosting, once again, a field biology course in partnership with Queen’s University and St. Lawrence College, and the chance to study close to home was too good for Sean Phippen to pass up.

“There’s not a lot of opportunity for post-secondary in Cornwall, other than St. Lawrence College,” said Phippen. “The fact that a university course is offered in my backyard was great.”

The Queen’s University student has worked at the St. Lawrence River Institute for the past three years, but was looking for a new challenge, and found it in the St. Lawrence College labs.

The freshly-renovated labs provide high quality equipment for what is a high quality course, said professor Jeff Ridal, who is both executive director of the St. Lawrence River Institute and adjunct professor at Queen’s University.

He said students get a chance to do testing similar to what is done for environmental regulations and get plenty of contact with professors that they lack in classes of 200 or more.

“It’s great to work with someone who is an expert in their field,” said Phippen, who is a biochemistry student.

Phippen said he spent the summer testing E.coli, pH and dissolved oxygen levels in area beaches as part of the beach health project.

Now, as part of the ecotoxicology course, he is working on fish toxicity amongst other things.

“It opened my eyes to the benefits of research,” said Phippen, who is now thinking of going into research, rather than medical school, after undergrad.

“You definitely learn a lot more of sampling and research methods.”

Valerie May said she has also enjoyed the hands-on experience, and as a marine biology student at the University of Guelph, it has been right up her alley.

“It’s a lot easier than I thought it would be,” said May, who is also from Cornwall. The course fits a semester’s worth of learning into two weeks, but Ridal said the students benefit from 100 classroom hours and working closely with the two professors.

“It’s very collaborative,” said Phippen.

The course brings together 16 students from seven Ontario universities. Cornwall has hosted the course five times, while other courses take students to California or Costa Rica for field study.

Cornwall, however, is a perfect site, said professor Peter Hodson, because of the water quality issues in the area and the partnerships that exist.

Hodson said the program started with mercury and other experiments on the St. Lawrence River and the Domtar sites, where students tested effluent and if it affected the water above and below stream even when treated.

“It was a giant experiment laid out on the waterfront,” he said.

Since the water quality issues are not nearly as acute, the program instead went to Lafleche Leblanc Soil Recycling to look at their efforts to treat contaminated soil and if the creeks and environment nearby were affected by discharge.

“They are able to repeat tests Lafleche is doing for regulatory purposes,” Ridal explained.

Hodson said the program benefits from working with the St. Lawrence River Institute because its community partnerships get it access to the labs at St. Lawrence College and sites for testing.

“They are teaching from kindergarten to university-level students,” he said. “The result is they are really well set up to run this course.”

“It’s a nice advertisement for our environmental technician course,” said Ridal, who noted that university students can finish the hands-on course in just 8 months at St. Lawrence College.

The above article was written by Kathryn Burnham. You can read more articles written by Kathryn on the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder website at


About the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences

The River Institute was established in 1994 as a unique community partnership involving government, education, business and industry, and the Mohawks of Akwesasne. Its mandate is environmental research and education with a focus on the Great Lakes / St. Lawrence River ecosystem. It has earned an international reputation for its fresh water ecosystem research projects. Find out more on the River Institute website:

Category: Environment