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Ryerson Urban Water
Spencer Crook working on lab equipment and smiling at the camera


"The ubiquity of microorganisms, and their impact on the world around us cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, only about one percent of bacteria can be cultivated in a lab setting using traditional techniques. This leaves us with a massive knowledge gap when attempting to assess the role microbes play within various environmental processes. This gap can be partially filled through the use of molecular (DNA based) techniques, allowing us to "see" these once-invisible microbes."

Spencer Crook is a Master's Student at Ryerson University in the Environmental Applied Science and Management Program. His thesis at Ryerson is focused on the effects of microorganisms on the proposed deep geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel.

Spencer is the recipient of a Dutch Liberation Scholarship and is attending graduate school at Wageningen University in The Netherlands from January until July. Spencer is working on a thesis project in Wageningen with Nora Sutton related to the microbial degradation of pesticides in soil and groundwater, with a focus on molecular techniques. Learn more about the student exchange opportunities with Wageningen University here

Amsterdam during King's Day celebrations

May 11, 2016

Spring appears to have finally sprung here in Wageningen and I think it’s finally safe to leave your handschoenen (The Dutch word for gloves meaning literally ‘hand shoes’) at home while cycling now. After a tumultuous March and April which included hail storms, blustery winds and brief periods of warmth (sometimes all within the same few hours), May has brought some seriously lekker weather. In fact, I’ve been told it was warmer here this past weekend than anywhere else in Europe and the sunburn I got while taking a dip in the Rhine can attest to beautiful weather we’ve been getting here lately.

Unfortunately, the pleasant weather did not make it here in time for the annual Koningsdag or King’s Day celebrations. This national holiday celebrated on April 27th, marks the King’s birthday and is celebrated with gusto across the whole of the country. Despite the wet weather and cold temperatures, I ventured to Amsterdam with some friends where the largest celebrations occur. Fortunately, it seems that a little bad weather can’t stop the Dutch from enjoying a party and we were greeted with crowded streets of orange-clad revellers dancing to bands or DJs set up on corners and in squares scattered across the city centre.

Streets in Wageningen during the liberation festival

Luckily, the warm temperatures and sunny days of late coincided perfectly with the 5th of May Liberation festivities held here in Wageningen. For one day the sleepy cobblestone streets and quaint shops characteristic of Wageningen were transformed into a bustling music festival with multiple stages. This event, held to commemorate the end of German occupation during World War II, attracted people from all across the country to Wageningen. It was amazing to see the normally tranquil city so full of music and partygoers.

Despite all the festivities going on, I’ve been able to accomplish some here work as well. In the last period (the academic year here is divided into 6 periods rather than 2 semesters), I had the opportunity to attend a course called “Renewable Energy: Sources, Technology & Applications”. The course focused on calculating energy and entropy flows, as well as efficiencies of various “green” sources of energy including wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectricity, and other more novel sources of renewable energy like Blue Energy, which is energy derived from the mixing of salt and fresh water. The course while challenging, was also quite interesting and featured weekly guest lectures given by experts from both industry and academia on various aspects of renewable energy.

My research has been steadily progressing as well. Having completed the DNA extractions from the water samples I mentioned in my last entry, I did a series of PCR steps to select and amplify specific DNA segments. These segments were tagged with a code allowing us to recognize our samples and sent off for DNA sequencing. After some weeks of waiting, we’ve received a massive amount of data back and now comes the task of interpreting all those C’s G’s A’s and T’s!

I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed here in Wageningen, but with more warm weather on the way, I better get back to working on my thesis so I can enjoy some more of this surprisingly nice weather!




Milk bottle lined up with a row of bottles beside them

February 23, 2016

I've been studying here at Wageningen for over a month now and the experience as a whole has been nothing short of gezellig (which is a Dutch word you'll come to know if you get the opportunity to visit as well). I'm working in the Environmental Technology department in a new, modern building called Axis Z with great lab space. The labs feature self contained, climate controlled pods which house different experimental setups. As well, the building itself has many innovative facilities like "green" bathrooms which separate waste, which can then be treated locally. I'm only beginning my practical research so I'll provide more updates on the labs as time goes on.

I've been out on a day of field work recently where Nora and I drove to the north of the country to a town near Zwolle. We extracted about 200 litres of groundwater and I got to experience a healthy dose of typical Dutch winter weather (rain). We're now busy working on extracting the DNA from the bacteria present in these samples to better understand the breakdown of pesticides present from agricultural runoff.

As great as the facilities here are, the people are even better. Our department is extremely international with students and faculty from all over the world. Off the top of my head, there are Masters and PhD students here in the department from France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Mexico, Chile, China, Latvia, Italy and, of course, The Netherlands. With such a diverse group bringing different experiences and perspectives, great and enlightening conversation is the norm. To promote and atmosphere of "togetherness" and gezelligheid, our department offers free coffee, and scheduled coffee and lunch breaks where everyone socializes. I think it's a great way to break up a day of research and lab work which can become quite isolating.

Two men pouring samples into a container

Beyond the realm of academics, just being in Wageningen is great as well. The landscape surrounding Wag U can be described as picturesque, with beautiful old buildings (some hundreds of years old), cobblestone roads, and small farms with sheep or cows around the edges of the town. While the town is fairly small (about 40,000 people), there is a thriving student community with no shortage of activities, sports, and parties every night of the week. If however, you can't find something to do for a weekend and you're feeling adventurous, you can hop a quick flight with a discount airline to cities like Rome, Barcelona, or Paris for about the cost of a weekly metropass!  

So far, everyday here has been rife with new learning experiences both academic and cultural and I couldn't be happier that I was offered the chance to attend Wag U, but if you'll excuse me, our department is currently having their weekly borrel (drinks and snacks provided after work; usually Dutch and Belgian beers with cured meats, cheese, and bread) and it wouldn't be very gezellig of me if I didn't attend.




Spencer Crook, MASc student, Environmental Applied Science and Management graduate program


For more information on student exchange opportunities with Wageningen University please see: