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John Smol

[John Smol photo]

Department of Biology

Cross-appointed to the School of Environmental Studies

My overall goal as a professor is to channel ambition and vision in the creative process we call science. At the same time, we must continually demonstrate, by example, the importance of maintaining a strong moral compass in what we do. Science and other forms of scholarship can and do make a big difference in the world. We should never underestimate the importance of what we do. For a democracy to function effectively, it needs an educated and an active citizenry. In universities, we transform lives. 

Ecologist, environmental scientist and limnologist John Smol has edited and authored 19 books and counting, more than 700 conference presentations, and more than 400 journal papers and chapters. He has lectured on all seven continents. And in his spare time he co-directs the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory (PEARL) at Queen's. 

All this work has garnered Smol more than 35 awards and fellowships including the NSERC Herzberg Gold Medal as Canada's top scientist or engineer. Not bad for an urban kid who grew up on the streets of Montreal with nary a lake in sight.

"I grew up interested in ditches and water, but not really biology. But I was a young adult when the environmental movement was in full swing, became interested, and did my marine biology specialization at McGill."

It's not work at all...

Summers usually saw Smol doing hard labour on construction sites, until the end of his final year of university when he got a job at the Lake Memphremagog Field Station in Quebec. "I thought this was much better than holding a jack hammer! I was deeply interested in the environment and in lakes by that time, so I didn't see it as work at all. That love has stayed with me."

At Queen's since 1984, Smol sees research and teaching as a continuum, as blended. "I am both making knowledge and communicating knowledge." He is equally passionate about outreach and communication – whether scientist to scientist or scientist to the public. "If you don't communicate research, then why do it? If you can't explain why what you are doing is important, then it isn't." He was inspired by University of Alberta professor David Schindler because he is not only a leader in his field but a mentor in public outreach. Four years ago Smol received the T. Geoffrey Flynn Advancement Champion Award, Queen's University's highest award for service, for his scientific outreach and education work with the public.

In the classroom, Smol feels that the best teaching uses a number of skills from the educational toolbox. "Using the analogy of the strength of a four-legged stool, I have strived for teaching excellence in those four major areas: lecturing, laboratory explorations and skill development, field-based training, and a commitment to explaining the results of our work to the public at large."

Keeping it interesting...

For the field work component, Smol takes his students an hour outside of Kingston to the Queen's University Biological Station (QUBS) at Lake Opinicon, where they gather everything from live algae to sediment cores. But he also believes that lectures are still an important part of teaching. "You can't push the edges of the envelope until you know the dimensions of the envelope and what it is."

Of course he admits that it all has to be made interesting. "Think of it, my specialty is scum! My first challenge is how to get students interested in slime and algae. Lectures are about what you know and how you deliver. So I show why it is important, why it is relevant, and then show its applications. You have to put effort into making slides interesting. There is no doubt there is a bit of vaudeville involved in a lecture, it's a bit of a show."

Still, it is the students who continue to inspire him the most. "As a professor you get satisfaction from passing on knowledge and knowing that what you are doing is worthwhile. I try to give my students a sense of the urgency around environmental change, and remind them that we all have influence. They, in turn, ask me questions about basic principles for me to reflect upon. It keeps you moving. I am stunned at what some of my fourth year honour thesis students can do. More than 80% of my students get published, and many of them go on in the field."

Joshua Thienpont, a PhD candidate in Biology, says, "Dr. Smol always puts his mentoring and teaching responsibilities first. It has been a great advantage working and learning under his supervision while at Queen's." No doubt others agree, as in 2009 Smol was presented with a 3M National Teaching Fellowship, considered by many to be Canada's highest teaching award. And in 2010, Nature magazine named him Canada's Top Mid-Career Science Mentor.

"My teaching philosophy also includes this one final requirement: always make time to laugh out loud with your students at least once - and preferably more times - a day."

Profile by Patricia Henderson