Commending Professor Mark Servos’ efforts to track the spread of COVID-19

Friday, January 21, 2022

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Professor Mark Servos has been working tirelessly to contribute towards our understanding of COVID-19, leading wastewater testing efforts locally and across Canada. His research has recently been highlighted in the media as wastewater surveillance becomes a significant tool in our community’s efforts to track the spread of COVID-19, and his efforts are being recognized with a Minister of Colleges and Universities' Awards of Excellence.

Wastewater Surveillance for COVID-19

Professor Servos is a Canada Research Chair in Water Quality Protection in the University of Waterloo’s Department of Biology. Prior to the pandemic, his research focused on the impact of trace contaminants on fish and other aquatic life.  His studies examined how wastewater treatment plant upgrades influenced the health of fish populations as well as the development of new biomonitoring tools, such as the use of environmental DNA.

Near the beginning of the pandemic, Servos realized that this same research knowledge could easily be applied to monitor wastewater for signs of SARS-CoV-2 viral fragments. Working with what was available, Servos’ lab group modified methods, adapted instruments, and scrounged resources to initiate the work. Initially collaborating with a research groups from the University of Ottawa and Windsor, Servos developed a highly collaborative wastewater surveillance program.

Collaborating closely with the Public Health Units in Waterloo, York, and Peel he has generated important COVID-19 surveillance data that is informing public health action.

Mark Servos taking the cover off of a sewar grate near Beck Hall

He worked with the national Advisory Committee (Canadian COVID-19 Wastewater Collation, CWN) and contributed to several early background documents, including a briefing report for the Royal Society of Canada. As the pandemic intensified, Servos worked with other labs and the Ontario Wastewater Surveillance Program (MECP) to transfer methods to an emerging network of academic and commercial labs across Ontario. He led workshops, openly shared methods, and mentored labs to accelerate the adaptation of the approach. With the establishment of the MECP program in the late fall of 2020, he volunteered as Co-chair of the Implementation Table that has helped to rapidly deploy the wastewater surveillance network.

As the virus mutated, Waterloo’s wastewater surveillance research team contributed to the development of new assays for Variants of Concern that have been shared nationally. Through several municipal dashboards (including Waterloo Region), reports, and numerous presentations they have shared the results publicly. For more than sixteen months Servos has hosted a weekly meeting for people interested in the application of wastewater surveillance of COVID-19 and has contributed actively to the provincial (i.e., MECP) and national initiatives (e.g., Public Health Agency of Canada Working Groups). 

The dedication of Professor Servos and his team to serve and support the public health response in our communities has been truly outstanding. His leadership as a pioneer in the effort to implement wastewater surveillance has contributed to greatly to our fight against COVID-19.

Members of the uWaterloo team involved in the wastewater surveillance program include: Hadi Dhiyebi, Nivetha Srikanthan, Samina Hayat, Dr. Meghan Fuzzen, Leslie Bragg, Patrick Breadner, Blake Haskell, Dr. Heather Ikert, Yash Badlani, Eli Zeeb, Sean McKay, Kirsten Nikel, Erika Burton, Rhiannon Hodgson, Nathanael Harper, Noah Smith, Carly Sing-Judge and many Coop students (Emily Dodsworth, Samantha Maerten, Eleanor Wong, Joud Abu Farah, Alice Gere, Max Kirby, Geoffrey Che, Andrew Wood, Sarah Kowalczyk, Sandra Salic, Zack Miller, Tinotenda Muzenda, Tessa North, Danielle Simons, Rashne Vakaria). Many other members of the Waterloo community have contributed in many ways to this effort.

Minister of Colleges and Universities' Awards of Excellence

Each year, the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities awards postsecondary faculty, staff, or graduate students Awards of Excellence in recognition of their Ontario spirit and leadership during the past year. Awardees are making a difference in their communities, be it their campuses, local regions, or the larger province, and the award is designed to shine a spotlight on the incredible work being done.

Nominated by Bob Lemieux, Dean of Science, Professor Servos is being recognized in the “Everyday Heroes” category, which awards faculty and staff who have stepped up and made a difference during the pandemic and the 2020/2021 school year.

Other Waterloo community members who won a 2021 Award of Excellence, each in a different category, included Heather Hall (Faculty of Environment), Ange Pause (Faculty of Engineering), and Lucas Tang (Faculty of Engineering).

Beyond the Bulletin Podcast

This week, Servos was also featured on Waterloo’s Beyond the Bulletin Podcast. In the feature interview, Servos talks more about shifting his lab’s focus to the wastewater surveillance program, the impact his team is having, and what motivates them.

Mark Servos and the Beyond the Bulletin logo

Beyond the Bulletin is a weekly podcast with hosts Brandon Sweet and Pamela Smyth that highlights news, events and commentary from the Daily Bulletin, the University of Waterloo’s internal newsletter. The podcast also features a brief look ahead as well as an interview on a subject of interest to the University community.

Listen to Episode 115 (11:17 – 32:28) for the full interview.