Barbara Sherwood Lollar

Old Water, New Discoveries

Dr. Sherwood Lollar developed techniques to identify chemical signatures in groundwaters to remediate contamination and to investigate water isolated kilometres below the Earth’s surface for millions of years. With colleagues, she discovered the world’s oldest water, estimated to be more than a billion years old.

Dr. Barbara Sherwood Lollar’s research, which focuses on ancient water isolated underground for more than a billion years, may have implications that are out-of-this-world.

Born in Kingston, Ontario, Sherwood Lollar credits her early interest in a career in science to books by Jules Verne, but she feared that all of the great discoveries had already been made. When in high school, she learned that scientists were only beginning to discover extreme organisms that lived deep in the ocean, particularly around hydrothermal vents. This inspired her to pursue a career exploring these newfound worlds. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Geological Science from Harvard University, a PhD in Earth Sciences from the University of Waterloo and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Cambridge. She then joined the University of Toronto and began her career as a professor.

She established the scientific principles behind compound-specific stable carbon isotope analysis, which identifies pollutants in rural and urban groundwater and their source, with only a tiny sample of water. This helps engineers determine how successfully their clean-up is proceeding.

She was a part of an international team that investigates the nature and distribution of microbes called chemolithotrophs, organisms that live deep in the Earth’s crust. These organisms survive by getting their energy from hydrogen and minerals, rather than drawing their energy from photosynthesis. It has been theorized that if life could exist in other extreme conditions, even on planets such as Mars or some of the moons of the gas giants, it might use similar strategies

In 2016, she was awarded the John C. Polanyi Award for her role in discovering the world’s oldest water, and her research earned her the 2019 Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal and the 2020 Killam Prize in Natural Sciences by the Canada Council for the Arts. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the American Geophysical Union, and the Royal Society, a Companion in the Order of Canada, and has won numerous awards, including the ENI Award, the Bancroft Award and the Logan Medal.

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