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Young Scientist Profile: Dr. Carl Peters, Postdoctoral Fellow “We want to map go and no go areas for offshore drilling.”

This project has the potential to shave millions of dollars from oil and gas exploration costs and bring more certainty to the risky business of exploratory well drilling in marine environments.

Field: Marine Biogeochemistry, specializing in lipidomics, the analysis of lipid species found in organisms.

A native of Bremen, Germany, Dr. Carl Peters has been in Halifax since 2017. He arrived by way of Sydney, Australia, after doing a PhD in organic geochemistry at Macquarie University and research at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. His five-year stay Down Under followed studies in geochemistry and marine geoscience at the University of Bremen where he obtained his BSc and MSc, and worked in one of the world’s pre-eminent organic chemistry labs in environmental lipidomics at the Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences.

That’s really exciting because that has never been done before in this detail and with this kind of effort.

Peters is part of Dr. G. Todd Ventura’s organic geochemistry lab team, in the Department of Geology, Saint Mary’s University. Ventura, a Tier II Canada Research Chair, recruited Peters as a Mitacs-funded intern for his lipidomic expertise in a national microbial genomics project aimed at helping the province’s off-shore oil and gas industry reduce its exploration costs and improve its discovery rate.

Current Project: a $4.9 million, three-year study, Microbial Genomics for De-risking Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration in Nova Scotia. It mixes genomics technologies and several geoscience disciplines to provide a more accurate picture of Nova Scotia’s offshore petroleum resources. The project, funded under Genome Canada’s Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP), is a national collaboration that includes Genome Atlantic, Genome Alberta, the Offshore Energy Research Association of Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Department of Energy and Mines, the Geological Survey of Canada, the University of Calgary, Saint Mary’s University and Mitacs.

The Challenge: For Peters it is analyzing the species of lipids found in lipid extracts made from marine sediment samples taken off the Nova Scotia coast. The samples are collected around seeps where petroleum naturally bubbles through the ocean floor, and he uses liquid chromatography, a method of separating lipids in the extracts, to do the analysis. Specifically, he hunts for intact polar lipids from bacteria associated with oil and gas deposits.

The Objective:  To develop new screening techniques, including profiles of the lipid clusters in marine sediment, that could help confirm the presence of offshore oil and gas reserves. Put another way, the project aims to develop an array of genomics-based tools to identify the aerobic, anaerobic and thermophilic bacteria that thrive on hydrocarbons and indicate nearby undersea stores of oil and gas. The achievement could shave millions of dollars from oil and gas exploration costs and bring more certainty to the risky business of exploratory well drilling in marine environments.

The Project’s Importance: Peters explains reliable tools to map “go and no-go areas,” for offshore drilling could help revive oil and gas exploration off Nova Scotia’s east coast. New offshore commercial reserves would mean new royalty and tax revenue for the government as well as significant new employment and investment. While Nova Scotia is the focus, offshore drilling in other jurisdictions with similar marine environments could also benefit.

The Exciting Part: “The integrative aspects” says Peters. “We’re going to put a huge dataset together that consists of genomics, proteomics and lipidomics.” The plan is for Ventura, who manages the overall lipidomics and integration components, to fold Peters’ lipidomics data into the results from the University of Calgary’s genomic and proteomic (protein) analyses of the marine sediment samples. “That’s really exciting because that has never been done before in this detail and with this kind of effort.” He is eager to see how the data from the different sources dovetail and what the comparisons will reveal. Only then will they know how close they have come to their objective.

Project’s Significance for Your Career Path: Like most postdocs, Peters doesn’t know whether he will ultimately land in academe or the private sector, so he has to keep his skill set sharp and versatile. In this project, he said, “I’ve learned a lot that’s helpful. The networking is really fantastic.” It provided good counterpoint to the solo endeavor of his PhD.  “I have never worked in such a big project and one that was so collaborative and multi-disciplinary.” He now has contacts from the University of Calgary to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography and from the Offshore Energy Research Organization of Nova Scotia to the Nova Scotia Department of Energy and Mines. In the near term he hopes the experience leads to a projected follow up investigation he helped design that would keep him in Halifax for another three years, this time as a research associate. Peters would like to extend his stay in the city; his partner, a data scientist who holds a PhD in geology, has settled in at Dalhousie University as a senior data manager, and a few months ago they welcomed their first child.

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