David Schindler’s legacy of environmental science excellence

    In November 2013, the U of A celebrated the 60-year career of one its most famous scientists, David Schindler, at a special event in honour of his retirement.

    By Bryan Murphy on June 23, 2014

    In November 2013, the U of A celebrated the 60-year career of one its most famous scientists, David Schindler, at a special event in honour of his retirement. David Schindler (biological sciences)— who rewrote the practice of water ecology as the inaugural director of the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario, also became renowned as one of Canada’s most powerful environmental advocates. 

    Schindler’s former colleagues and students— the who’s who of ecology in Canada—joined him for the two-day symposium: Letting in the Light: Science to Guide Public Water Policy in the 21st Century. The title pays homage to one of his favorite quotes from Leonard Cohen—“There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in ”—and says everything Schindler wants to say about the need to shine the light on the critical environmental issues that only science can address. 

    The symposium’s first presenter, longtime friend and fellow ecological activist David Suzuki, sums up Schindler’s legacy: “His meticulous research and the courage of his convictions make the world a better place… His legacy is his utter commitment to doing good science that informs his pronouncements on public policy or implications,” said Suzuki. “Without his top-notch research, he would not have had the impact he has. For young scientists, his courage in speaking out even in the face of controversy, I hope will inspire them.” 

    A gathering of the deeply committed 

    Joining Suzuki were many of the scientists he had worked with during his founding work at the Experimental Lakes Area, including John Smol, a Queen’s University biologist and longtime Schindler collaborator. 

    Smol presented his paleolimnology research from the waterways near Alberta’s oil sands, inspired by an earlier UAlberta study supervised by Schindler. In 2009, the U of A research team found high levels of airborne Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in freshly fallen snow as far as 50 kilometers from oil sands production facilities. Following the U of A’s lead, Smol analyzed mud from the bottom of rivers and streams to get a historic look at PAH levels before and after the start of oil sands mining. Smol’s data showed that since the start of the oil sands in the mid ‘60s, PAH levels increased 24-fold in waterways as far as 90 kilometers from oil sands developments. 

    “Our findings wouldn’t have been possible without Dave[Schindler] and Erin Kelly’s (‘07, PhD) PAH analysis of the snow cover,” said Smol. “In fact most of the work we’re doing in paleolimnology has a connection to Dave Schindler’s work.” 

    All the presenters told stories of their close working relationships with Schindler, but one speaker drew big laughs from the crowd when he described his personal bond with the man. 

    “I bet I’m the only person on this panel who had their baby diapers changed by David Schindler,” bragged Daniel Schindler—David’s son, all grown up now and a professor and Chair in Fisheries at the University of Washington. Daniel’s special interest is the salmon fishery in Alaska. 

    Daniel and his team took five decades of salmon data collected in Bristol Bay and made landmark findings for a whole-landscape environmental study. The research showed the genetic diversity of Bristol Bay’s salmon population, one the most highly productive, sustainable fisheries in the world. 

    The researchers looked at the Bristol Bay watershed from the bordering ocean to the rivers, streams, and the shoreline landscape and the geography beyond. Daniel compared their pains taking research to analysis of a financial investment portfolio. “Many different groups of sockeye salmon coming and going through Bristol Bay creates diversity and a resilience to total population failures.” 

    For the important fishing economy of the areas, the diversity buffers the industry from devastating downturns. 

    Daniel’s broad landscape study follows the scope of his father’s landmark research at Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario. It was there in 1968 that Schindler began using whole lakes for experiments. Eventually he linked phosphorous from the soap detergent industry to lake-killing algae blooms. Now Schindler is deeply concerned that run-off from agricultural chemicals, the other major source of Lake Eutrophication has escaped intensive investigation because of funding cuts to ELA.

    “If they had continued to put even a small amount of money into ELA studies of eutrophication by run-off we wouldn’t be where we are now,” said Schindler. 

    One important whole lake study that was completed was led by Karen Kidd, a former Schindler PhD student. Using a mix of humour and scary data showing that synthetic estrogen has a strange effect on male fresh water fish, she titled her presentation: Is the birth control pill an effective form of contraception for fish? 

    Kidd’s research story began with the flush of a toilet and the passage of chemicals, some natural, some pharmaceutical, through sewage treatment systems and into the bodies of freshwater fish. In some Canadian waterways, 60 per cent of the males showed inter-sex features; their testes were smaller than normal, and in extreme cases male fish developed reproductive eggs. 

    “It was found that the main culprits of the feminization of fish are the natural hormones that we excrete,” said Kidd. She explained that natural estrogen and the synthetic estrogen used in the birth control pills are part of the chemical soup ingested by fish both through their gills and in their food sources. 

    Employing Schindler’s whole lake experimental methods, they added synthetic estrogen to a lake and monitored the reaction of fathead minnows. Over the course of three years the researchers found that very low levels of estrogen caused feminization of the male minnows and the near extinction of the species in the test lake. 

    Kidd equated the demise of the test lake’s fathead minnows to a similar scale decline in Canada’s human population. At the same rate of reproductive failure, she said, the country’s current population of 35,158,000 people would slide to just 30,572. 

    Kidd thanked Schindler for guiding her through her postgraduate studies and for passing on his tireless work ethic. Kidd even went the extra mile of soliciting comments from Schindler’s current U of A students. 

    “Goes to the Moon and back for his students.” 

    “Lets us learn by making mistakes.” 

    All the symposium speakers would eventually steer their talks to personal stories about Schindler’s mentorship and support. Peter Dillion of Trent University had a story. 

    More than 30 years before he would go on to become a leading researcher on acid rain, Dillon and Schindler crossed paths. 

    “I met Dave briefly and back then, being a brash graduate student, I wrote him a letter asking for all his ELA research,” explained Dillon. Dillon was blown away by the response. “Not only did Dave offer all his data, he asked me how he could best organize it for me.” Dillon notes that this happened in the days before personal computers so collecting all that research data would have been very time consuming. 

    “Dave Schindler is the most generous, unselfish scientist I know,” said Dillon. “Because of that, we’ve been collaborating for 40 years.” 

    Always inclusive in discussing the findings of his research, Schindler has worked diligently to engage the public in environmental research. Throughout his career Schindler has openly criticized governments for environment policies that disregard scientific findings. But over his long career he admits to being occasionally surprised by a politician’s reaction. 

    During the wrap up for the day-long symposium Schindler told a story about meeting the iconic, arch conservative world leader, Margaret Thatcher. The meeting came at a time when Scandinavian leaders charged the United Kingdom was destroying their lakes. 

    Schindler says that following the conference, in which acid rain caused by Britain’s coal burning industry was linked to acid rain in Scandinavia, he found himself sharing a dinner table with Thatcher. 

    “She argued with us about our findings,” said Schindler. Thatcher argued well, said Schindler, because of her Oxford education in chemistry. Schindler was impressed with Thatcher’s science based questioning and surprised by her final response. 

    “Thatcher stood up and said, ‘I’m convinced the evidence shows emissions from coal fired plants in the UK are causing acid rain in Scandinavia and we will stop.’” 

    Too many times over his career, Schindler says policy makers seem to tune out inconvenient environmental research findings. “I can’t argue with a politician who looks at the science and says yeah it’s good science, it shows some damage, but we’re not going to consider it in our decision, and here’s why,” said Schindler. “I have no respect for someone who just silences the science.” 


    How to support water research at the U of A 

    Research will focus on water issues that impact Alberta, Canada and the world. By example, it will examine water concerns in remote areas (including Canada’s North), and global challenges of indigenous communities which are dependent on fisheries and strong water ecology. For more information, please contact Kim Taylor, Assistant Dean, Development at (780) 492-7411 or kjt@ualberta.ca.