Where can a curiosity about tiny organisms that cling to underwater surfaces take someone?
In the case of Professor Nandakumar (Nanda) Kanavillil, it's led to two PhDs, studies at world-leading research institutes, and the creation of Lakehead Orillia's Research Centre for Sustainable Communities.
Professor Kanavillil has devoted himself to studying microfouling organisms – the smallest type of biofouling organisms. These communities of microscopic creatures attach themselves to submerged objects like ship hulls and offshore drilling platforms.
Although this sounds harmless, it creates problems including decreased fuel efficiency (by slowing down maritime vessels and creating drag), increased pollution, and serious safety risks – these noxious accretions can compromise the operation of nuclear power plants and municipal water lines. They also corrode metal.
"If we can prevent the growth of the smallest organisms that cause the formation of biofilms (slime made of bacteria and algae), the preliminary stage of biofouling," says Professor Kanavillil, "we can solve issues facing industries such as shipping, fishing, and nuclear power generation."
His interest in biofouling sprouted while studying marine biology 30 years ago at Goa University in India. After finishing his doctorate, he spent four years in Japan researching biofouling organisms at Kyushu University's Amakusa Marine Biological Laboratory. He completed a second PhD (Doctor of Science) and then worked at the Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research in India before returning to Japan to study biofilms as the prestigious Centre of Excellence Fellow at Osaka University.
In 2003, Professor Kanavillil and his family moved to Canada where he investigated invasive aquatic species at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor before continuing his biofilms research at Lakehead University's Thunder Bay campus.
It was not long before he was hired as one of Lakehead Orillia's founding faculty members. He's now an associate professor of Sustainability Sciences/Biology and the founding director of the new Research Centre for Sustainable Communities.
"What really kick-started research activities at the Orillia campus was our successful 2009 funding application to Environment Canada's Lake Simcoe Clean Up Fund," says Professor Kanavillil. "This was the first major external research grant received by the campus." This small water quality project metamorphosed into a thriving graduate studies group, numerous published articles, and a widened research scope.
"We are now getting inquiries from nongovernmental and community organizations that want to adopt or suggest methods for mitigating water quality problems," he says.
Now he's part of the innovative Research Centre for Sustainable Communities – a collective of interdisciplinary researchers. "This concept makes excellent use of our expertise," says Professor Kanavillil. The Centre has three pillars: Environmental Sustainability, Political Economy, and Social Justice. "To understand a community and its sustainability, we need to study all these three aspects," he explains.
As the University enters its 50th year, Professor Kanavillil believes the Orillia campus has much to offer. "We can give back by properly educating the current generation about their responsibilities to make our communities sustainable for future generations."