By: Krista Henry (she/her)

Waterloo co-op students help advance research into the impacts of air pollution.

Health Canada hires University of Waterloo Science co-op students to advance important research around air pollution and its impact on disease.

The largest environmental risk factor to human health is air pollution. The World Health Organization recognized air pollution as a major contributor to the development of disease. Health Canada’s Inhalation Toxicology Lab hires co-op students to understand how the environment, in particular air, shapes human health.

Errol Thomson, research scientist, Environmental Health Science and Research Bureau, Health Canada

Errol Thomson
Research scientist, Environmental Health Science and Research Bureau, Health Canada

“Our lab has shown that air pollutants act like chronic stressors. This causes the release of stress hormones that affect every cell in the body,” says Errol Thomson, research scientist, Environmental Health Science and Research Bureau, Health Canada.

“Research helps us understand why exposure to air pollution leads to adverse health outcomes, from asthma to diabetes and mental health issues.”

Thomson (he/him) leads the Ottawa-based lab. The lab hires students from Science and Business, Biology and Biochemistry programs.

Co-op students at the lab work as molecular toxicology laboratory research assistants. They conduct research to help identify determinants of toxicity in the air and the impacts of inhaled pollutants.

Training next-generation scientists

For Thomson, the energy and enthusiasm students bring to the lab is a major benefit.

Students help us move our projects ahead while gaining skills and practical experience. We have a responsibility to train the next generation of scientists by hiring co-op students. They gain hands-on experience with us that they might not get through their academic program.

ERROL THOMSON, research scientist,
Environmental Health Science and Research Bureau, Health Canada

The lab hires students for both four and eight-month co-op terms. Thomson looks for students with an interest in the lab’s research area. He also values students who can demonstrate commitment and curiosity.

“These factors signal to me that the students are likely to care about the work that they do. And that generally translates into higher quality work and a strong work term,” says Thomson. “My experience with Waterloo is that it’s a long-standing and well-run co-op program. I’ve had a lot of success finding good candidates.”

Students at the lab study biological processes activated by pollutants. Currently, the lab has two Waterloo co-op students contributing to experiments involving an artificial lung system. The research enables the lab to expose lung cells to airborne contaminants under conditions that mimic those in the natural environment. Students culture cells and run an analysis on how these cells respond to contaminant exposure.

“I want our students to understand the start, middle and end of the project. This way they can feel like they’re part of the bigger picture,” says Thomson. “I want them to understand the contributions they are making.”

The samples and results that students generate can contribute for years into the future. The collective work of the lab’s research program depends on the high-quality work that students help produce.

Canadian governmental regulators and evaluators rely on data generated in the lab. The lab submits manuscripts about their research results to peer-reviewed journals. Regulators and evaluators use the published research in risk assessment documents. The documents inform decisions that can impact the health of Canadians.

Government offers diverse roles

Health Canada has diverse roles where students can make an impact on the future. Beyond the lab, Health Canada also hires Waterloo co-op students to work as research assistants, scientific evaluators, junior corporate regulatory compliance and enforcement officers, junior business analysts, junior risk evaluator and consumer product safety co-ops, and other roles.

Often, Health Canada offers permanent roles to co-op students upon graduation. Co-op acts as a sustainable channel to future-ready talent for Health Canada.