UAlberta's freshwater watchdog passes torch to next generation

One of the University of Alberta's most highly acclaimed scientists, David Schindler has earned international acclaim for the excellence of his ecological research and the impact he has had in guiding industry and government toward sound environmental practices.

(Edmonton) It was almost the career that never was. David Schindler grew up on the edge of lake country in northern Minnesota and cherished the time he spent by the water fishing and exploring. But a guidance counsellor in high school told him there were no careers in biology, so Schindler enrolled in engineering physics at Minnesota State University, convinced it would lead to a job.

While visiting a friend at North Dakota State, however, he found himself captivated by a display cage full of stuffed birds.

“This guy in a white coat came along and asked me what I was doing there,” recalls Schindler. “I explained I’d always liked biology. He said come into my office and I’ll tell you about it.

“When he found out I was a physics student, he pulled out this big box with a bomb calorimeter, a device for determining energy content. He wanted to do it on organisms but didn’t know how to set it up and asked me to do it. He also let me take books off his shelf to read. The first ones I read were in ecology, and I got so turned on I switched universities right away and never looked back.”

That chance meeting in a hallway launched one of the most successful careers in Canadian science.

Since the 1960s, Schindler’s name has been synonymous with limnology, the study of freshwater ecosystems. One of his earliest discoveries of the late ’60s led to a ban on detergent phosphates, which he showed were starving lakes of oxygen. He saw evidence of global warming in the early ’70s before most people had heard the term. And he proved that acid rain was causing the widespread death of fish in the ’70s and early ’80s.

Most recently, he has collected irrefutable sets of data showing that contamination of Alberta’s Athabasca River can be at least partly attributed to emissions from oilsands production.

Much of Schindler’s work—and his determination to communicate science to whoever will listen—has landed him in hot water with government and industry intent on maintaining the status quo. But he hasn’t let this stop him from raising the alarm time and time again. Indeed, he has been one of the most outspoken researchers the U of A has ever had, never afraid to defend sound science.

He is nevertheless quick to point out that he is not the partisan he is often accused of being: “Some of the best ministers we’ve had have been conservative…. It has nothing to do with politics, as much as some would like to think it does.” He simply laments a prevalent culture in which science just doesn’t seem to matter as much as it once did in driving policy.

Schindler arrived at the U of A as Killam Memorial Chair and Professor of Ecology in 1989 after working for Trent University and the now-disbanded federal Fisheries Research Board. He says the support he’s had from the U of A has been generous and unwavering: “I wouldn’t have stayed if the university hadn’t been so supportive, and the Killam Foundation as well.”

His awards and accolades are far too numerous to list, but among the most prestigious are the Rhodes Scholarship, the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal, the first Stockholm Water Prize, the Volvo Environmental Prize and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement.

When asked what he’s most proud of in a long and distinguished career, he answers without hesitation—his role in founding the now-threatened Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a region of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario used to conduct whole-ecosystem experiments over the last four decades. The only site of its kind in the world, it was ELA that provided the evidence for the effects of phosphorus and acid rain on lakes.

“There is nowhere else you can add known quantities of things to ecosystems knowing there’s nothing else going on,” says Schindler. “It’s obviously paid off very well.”

Schindler’s legacy at ELA, along with 44 years’ worth of invaluable data, could be forever lost. After the federal government cut funding to the site last spring, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne recently announced an interim agreement to keep it open. The problem is, legal restrictions currently make it impossible for scientists to continue their work there. But negotiations continue, and Schindler is hopeful that tangle will soon be sorted out.

The 73-year-old scientist says his retirement this fall means he will no longer be teaching or applying for research grants, but there is still much work to do. He has a “backlog” of research amounting to about five years of writing, along with a few student studies he’d like to see through to publication. He’ll also remain an adviser to ELA.

He’s chosen this moment to pack in his teaching career mainly because he’s “started to feel a little out of touch with the students,” he says. “They’re way too pampered these days. They expect to live in hotels in the field instead of tents, and they expect to do research when it doesn’t interfere with their vacations or family weddings.”

At the same time, he admits this assessment is a generalization, and that the future is in good hands with an emerging generation of talented new scientists. “There are always those who stand out.” He points to Diane Orihel, a doctoral student who put her degree on hold to fight for ELA, risking her career to do so.

Also among that next generation are Schindler’s own son Daniel, a professor of aquatic and fisheries sciences at the University of Washington, and his daughter Eva, a biologist with the B.C. government’s Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program.

Schindler will soon be leaving his acreage about an hour’s drive west of Edmonton— where he once raised dozens of sled dogs for the race circuit—for Brisco, near Radium, B.C., where his wife Suzanne Bayley, a wetland scientist, has been doing research of her own.

Now that we no longer have Schindler to point out the risks to the environment, however, where should we be focusing our vigilance?

“Quality and quantity of water,” he says, as always. “It’s the best indicator of things going wrong more generally in the ecosystem.”

Symposium celebrates Schindler's lifetime achievements

To celebrate David Schindler's internationally acclaimed career, the U of A's Faculty of Science is holding a symposium Oct. 30 and 31. Featuring a public lecture by David Suzuki and presentations by Schindler's colleagues and former students—Canada’s most prominent luminaries in the science of water ecology—the symposium will mark his legacy and consider how science can continue to guide sound public water policy in the 21st century.

Learn more about the symposium