Dr. David Schindler's parting thoughts on a life of science: Yes, one person can change the world (at least in small ways)

We will be featuring a three-part series on Dr. Schindler's life in science as he prepares for retirement. We will mark his iconic 50 years by sharing his story ? beginning with how he found his way into a career that has reshaped the role of science in a changing wold.

Dr. David W. Schindler - 29 October 2013

We will be featuring a three-part series on Dr. Schindler's life in science as he prepares for retirement. We will mark his iconic 50 years by sharing his story - beginning with how he found his way into a career that has reshaped the role of science in a changing wold.


I grew up in a small rural town in northwestern Minnesota. Until grade eight, I attended a small school run by Benedictine nuns. The schoolhouse was just four one-room wooden rural schools that were moved together and connected by a common hall. Two grades shared each of the four classrooms, instructed by a single nun. In lieu of a gymnasium, we had a big open lot where we were turned out for exercise. The only equipment was one basketball hoop with a threadbare net. From grades 9-12, I went to public school, where most of the students were rural, bused from about a 15 mile radius.

In high school I was always interested in ecology, especially of lakes. But I was told there were no careers in biology, except to teach high school, which seemed very unattractive when I thought of what teachers had to put up with. But I had an excellent high school math teacher, who made mathematics seem easy and fun. So I began university in engineering physics at the University of Minnesota. The physics was interesting, but abstract math as really not very inspiring. I also hated the big city, where it was impossible to even visit a natural ecosystem, as I did not own a car. At the end of my second year, I met a biology professor from North Dakota State University while I was visiting a friend in Fargo. Dr. Gabe Comita talked to me for over an hour, and when he found out that I had had a physics lab in bomb calorimetry, he offered me a summer job to set up a calorimeter that he had just purchased, to determine the energy content of microorganisms in lakes. I accepted, and found out about ecology reading books that I borrowed from him. I switched universities and majors and never looked back. Gabe's enthusiasm for science and ecology was contagious.

One of the first books I read was Charles Elton's Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, which was published in 1958. It described how invasive species were homogenizing the fauna and flora of the planet, in prose so graphic that it made my hair stand up. It was reading this book that led me to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, encouraged by Comita. I was selected, and did my doctorate with Elton at Oxford. I published my first paper, co-authored with Comita, in early 1963. To a 22 year old, it seemed very cool.

When I was nearing completion of my doctorate, I interviewed for jobs at the University of Michigan and Yale. I loved Oxford's environment and could have stayed there, but the UK was too crowded for my liking. I didn't like Michigan, where biopolitics between ecologists and cell-smashers were consuming biology. New Haven, Connecticutt was a gritty industrial city, not the pristine New England town I had imagined. I decided to look farther, and interviewed at Trent University, just opening its doors in Peterborough, Ontario. It was to teach using the tutorial system, which I had enjoyed at Oxford. It was near the edge of the Precambrian Shield, ideal for studying lakes and northern forests. I emigrated to Canada in 1966, along with my wife Käthe and one year old daughter Eva.


A year later, I was offered a job to head a new project with the Fisheries Research Board of Canada (FRBC), based in Winnipeg. The job was to perform whole-lake experiments to determine what caused algal blooms and how to control them, so called eutrophication. I turned the job down, it seemed very far-fetched. Jack Vallentyne, who headed the FRBC's Eutrophication Section, had visions of bringing the cream of talent in aquatic sciences to cold Winnipeg, which I thought was impossible. But Vallentyne was the world's most amazing recruiter, and a year later he had assembled a "who's who" of Canadian, American, European and Japanese talent in aquatic sciences. He persisted in trying to persuade me to join them, and in 1968, I accepted the job, after winning the concessions of having my family with me in the field, and being allowed to do research in the North part time. The result was what was to become the Experimental Lakes Area. Assisted by six university students, in summer of 1968 I set out to survey small lakes picked from roughly 1000 within a 20 km radius of our temporary camp. We selected 50 which we believed to be suitable for experiments. That summer I also selected a site for a permanent camp, and laid out a road to the site. ELA was opened at its current location in December, 1968.

Our first experiment at ELA was to resolve a dispute between aquatic scientists, who believed that controlling phosphorus and nitrogen was necessary to control eutrophication and the detergent industry, which, based on highly propagandized laboratory studies, claimed that controlling carbon was necessary to control the problem. Of course, the companies were trying to protect their detergent formulations, which in those days were based on polyphosphates. We chose a small lake, number 227, which our surveys had shown contained less carbon than any lake that had ever been studied. We hypothesized that we could test industry's theory by adding phosphorus and nitrogen. If a lake with such low carbon could produce algal blooms, we would have destroyed industry's carbon theory. If the lake did not respond with an algal bloom, we could then study how much carbon it was necessary to control. The answer came quickly. Lake 227 produced algal blooms within weeks, ending the theory that carbon control was essential. Carbon rapidly increased in the lake after we added phosphorus and nitrogen. In studies involving Wally Broecker from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a recognized expert on gas exchange in the world's oceans, we showed that the carbon was being "inhaled" by the lake from the atmosphere, a pathway which industry's experiments in small bottles had not considered. Our results were published in Science. ELA's first graduate student, Steve Emerson from Lamont-Doherty, did his PhD on the gas exchange of the lake. Steve is now professor of oceanography at the University of Washington in Seattle. This was the start of a long collaboration between Broecker and me, which resulted in a number of PhDs from Lamont-Doherty, which is part of Columbia University, doing their thesis research on ELA lakes. Most are still active in the US, Canada and beyond, as university professors of limnology or oceanography, or government scientists. Our long-term collaboration also resulted in considerable US money contributing to research at the ELA, most of it from the National Science Foundation.

At the time, the evidence for damage by acid rain was based entirely on small scale toxicity experiments, and the mysterious disappearance of organisms from Scandinavian lakes and a few lakes near Sudbury studied by Harold Harvey and his students. None of the mechanisms of effect were known. It was generally believed that damage to lakes began when pH values decreased below 5, where the small scale experiments showed damage to fish. We chose to acidify a small lake, Lake 223, very slowly, 0.25 pH units a year, studying many components of the community and several biogeochemical processes. We had two years of background data when we began adding acid in 1976. Within two years of adding acid, it became clear that ecosystems were much more sensitive to acidification than the small scale tests had shown. The food chain was topped by lake trout, a species not believed to be harmed until pH values decreased below 5. We found that at a pH less than 6, ten times less acidic, some of the key smaller species of fishes and crustaceans stopped reproducing, causing the lake trout to starve to the point where they stopped reproducing. Our 1985 paper inScience proved that to protect lakes, the sulphuric and nitric acid precursors emitted when fossil fuels were burned needed to be much better controlled than was thought at the time. It was the first study to show that effects on important fish species could be caused by harming other organisms..

The Lake 227 experiment continued through August of 2013, when fertilization was forced to stop by the withdrawal of ELA's funding by the Harper government. Many scientists are fighting to have the experiment resurrected by 2014, as for over 40 years it has continued to yield valuable insights into the long-term problems with eutrophication and its control. Bob Hecky will be describing some of this later work in his talk in our symposium on October 31.

The Detergent Industry was not done trying to protect its phosphate detergents! Their new theory was that phosphorus could never be controlled well enough to reduce eutrophication, because of the rapid rate of phosphorus recycling. We next tested this theory, using an hourglass shaped lake with two basins, separated by a heavy curtain of the sort that had been developed for containing oil spills in the oceans. We added nitrogen and carbon to both basins of Lake 226, but to one we added phosphorus as well. Within weeks, the basin receiving phosphorus turned green with an algal bloom, while the other basin remained largely unchanged. An aerial picture of this experiment has been called by Prof. Jim Elser of the University of Arizona "The single most powerful image in the history of limnology." It has been reprinted thousands of times in textbooks in many languages, and republished twice by Science. My 1974 paper containing the picture is usually regarded as the "Tipping point" which caused Canada, the USA, and many European countries to begin controlling phosphorus, by removing it from sewage and forcing the detergent industry to change its formulations.

In 1977, I published another paper in Science describing the mechanisms by which lakes could self-corrected any deficiencies in carbon or nitrogen, taking the elements from the atmosphere until the elements were in the proportions to phosphorus that were necessary to produce algal blooms. This is still ELA's most cited paper (though had citation search engines regarded papers before 1975, the 1974 paper would probably have surpassed it). Successive modifications to fertilization regimes in Lake 227 and field demonstrations in the Great Lakes and in dozens of European lakes have shown that phosphorus control is the only successful means of reducing eutrophication. Some scientists who have spent their careers studying nitrogen still dispute this success. Hecky, who directed ELA after I left, will have more to say on the science behind this dispute in his talk on Oct 31.


Reasoning that ELA had solved the eutrophication problem, DFO bureaucrats sought to close it, referring to it as a "sunset program." I could see that many of the errors in logic regarding control of eutrophication were probably also being made on managing other aquatic problems, and proposed that instead of closing, the ELA 's mandate be broadened to provide the scientific underpinnings for a wide variety of aquatic policy issues. While DFO grudgingly agreed to this plan and did not close the station, they did not provide research funding for our proposed ecosystem experiments on acid rain. Dr. Ron Wallace, a colleague at the Freshwater Institute, could see the power of the whole ecosystem experiments. He was DFO's representative in the new Alberta Oil Sands Environmental Research Project (AOSERP). Ron convinced the managers of AOSERP that they could learn more about the potential problems of acid rain by funding us than by doing studies in the then very remote oil sands area. AOSERP funded ELA research for three years, after which DFO bureaucrats, swayed by increasing public pressure, finally developed a program to study acid rain.

Studies in Lake 223 and background lakes of the area showed another important but previously unrecognized feature of lakes. It was widely believed that once lakes were acidified, the geological sources of acid "buffering" that provided resistance to acidification would be exhausted, so that lakes could never recover. Our detailed chemical inventories showed that there were other mechanisms within the lakes that were providing some of the resistance to acidification. They were microbial, not geological, and were actually increased as lakes acidified. As a result, if acidifying emissions were decreased, lakes could recover in part. This too resulted in a paper in Science, as well as launching the careers of several young scientists, including two of our speakers, John Rudd and Carol Kelly. The work quickly resulted in controls on acidifying emissions in Canada, at least sulphur oxides. As anyone who is old enough to remember Sudbury in the 1960s and has visited the area today will attest, the control of sulphur emissions was very effective. Canada, which still had a pro-environment government, responded quickly. The USA under Ronald Reagan was more reluctant, but the weight of evidence finally forced them to act as well to control sulphur emissions. However, as Peter Dillon will describe on October 31, emissions of nitrogen precursors should also have been controlled, and it is urgent that we do so today. Acid rain is also moving west, the results of oil sands development.

While at ELA, I was honoured by a number of awards and elections. I was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1983. I was also the Canadian representative to the International Limnological Society for several years in the late 1970s, and a plenary speaker at its meeting in Winnipeg in 1974. I was the Society's Baldi Lecturer and received its highest honor, the Naumann-Thienemann Medal, in 1988. I was elected president of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO), and received its highest honor, the GE Hutchinson Medal in 1985.

I also had a very full personal life. Eva was two years old when I started the ELA. Daniel was born only three months before we moved to ELA, to spend his first summer in a tent with a Furuno Echo Sounder box for a crib. Rachel was born the following year. All three grew up spending their summers at ELA, loving the place as much as I did.

But life was not all rosy. In 1974 and 1980, forest fires swept ELA, burning many watersheds, and scarcely missing the station. In the 1974 fire, I was in a plane crash while fighting forest fires that left me with several broken bones and other scars. I had continuous problems trying to convince DFO, with its fixation on cod and salmon, that ELA was a worthwhile investment. A camp full of mischievous, energetic young people was a handful to run. Sometimes the science seemed like the simple part, and a PhD in psychology might have been of more use than one in ecology. Käthe, born and raised in downtown Chicago, had hoped for several years in vain that as I advanced, I would abandon ELA for some more prestigious position in a more civilized environment. We divorced in 1977. Two years later, I met Suzanne Bayley at a scientific conference. We were married in 1980.

An important part of our work at ELA was to develop a monitoring program for precipitation, streamflow, lake levels, and their impacts on lake chemistry and biology. This was initially planned to provide a background reference for comparing changes caused by our experimental additions to lakes, but it soon became obvious that the record was important for other reasons. The long-term record gave us some important insights into the effects that climate warming would have on lakes. This too resulted in a paper in Science, another in Nature and several followup papers, as well as thesis projects for graduate students.

Part II available here.