Dundas teenager earns national award for environmental advocacy


Isabella O’Brien collects water samples at Soyers Lake in the Halliburton area.

Isabella O’Brien’s first foray into science fair projects began in Grade 4, testing the difference between bottled and tap water.

By Grade 6, a trip to Mexico piqued her interest in ocean acidification when she discovered dead coral while diving, prompting her to set up a science experiment in the basement of her Dundas home to study the issue.

Since then, the now 17-year-old’s environmental advocacy work has earned her two gold medals at Canada-wide science fairs, sent her to Google’s headquarters in California as a finalist in their global science and technology competition, and scored her a spot on her MP’s youth advisory council for the past three years.

Now, O’Brien can add Nature Inspiration Award winner to her resume, after receiving the 2018 youth award from the Canadian Museum of Nature earlier this month.

The Westmount Secondary School student was recognized for her work at a ceremony in Ottawa Nov. 7.

“It was really exciting,” said the Grade 12 student. “It was definitely a huge surprise to win.”

O’Brien’s fondness for science stems back to her days at St. Augustine Catholic Elementary School. There she had a “really good” science teacher in grades 1 through 3, and garnered inspiration from the science fair projects she had a chance to view while she was still too young to participate.

Once she had a chance to create her own project, there was no turning back.

“It was a ton of work, but it was a lot of fun — especially if my friends were doing it,” she said. “Just talking to people about your project was really, really exciting.”

Then came O’Brien’s diving experience, where she learned about ocean acidification through an ecological centre on the beach and “how it was becoming a big thing.”

This discovery prompted O’Brien to set up a homemade lab in her basement, where her experiments using waste shells pulverized with a coffee grinder showed it is possible to neutralize acidity and slow the effects of ocean acidification.

Following that research, O’Brien took a look at how to recycle calcium from harvested shells and return it to Ontario lakes.

Her work, which has earned her accolades as one of Canada’s Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25 on The Starfash Canada 2017 list, has been featured in exhibits at the Muskoka Discovery Centre in Gravenhurst as well as the Lake of Bays Marine Museum in Dorset.

While the teenager continues to enjoy investigating those topics, her real interest rests in using science to change policy, prompting her to consider focusing on environmental studies or geography when she heads off to university in the fall.

“On a lot of things, like climate change, the science is there — we know it’s a problem, and we know ways that we can deal with it. But the issue is we’re not dealing with it,” she said.

With both climate change and ocean acidification, O’Brien said it’s important that people understand the urgency of the issues and focus on how to effect change — now.

“I am optimistic that we have the solutions that we need to implement, and I am, at the moment, a little bit concerned since governments all over the place are backtracking on climate change legislation and other environmental legislation,” she said.

Looking to places like California and New Zealand brings the teen some comfort, because of their strides in environmental policy.

But it’s up to ordinary people to step up and help society push ahead, she said.

“I think people really need to indicate to governments that this is important to them, because otherwise we’re just not going to change,” O’Brien noted.

Natalie Paddon, The Hamilton Spectator, 2 December 2018. Article.

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