Sibling scientists earn one of Canada's top research prizes
By Anne Craig, Communications Officer
For Queen’s biologist John Smol and his brother, University of Ottawa professor Jules Blais, working to save the environment runs in the family. This year, the brothers are proud to share the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research, often considered to be the country’s second highest research award.
The Brockhouse Canada Prize recognizes teams of researchers who have produced a record of excellence in interdisciplinary research in the natural sciences and engineering. Dr. Smol studies aquatic ecology and paleoecology and Dr. Blais researches ecotoxicology; they have combined their areas of study for the past 15 years to research the legacy of toxic chemicals in the ground, water and air, and how these stressors have influenced living things around the world.
“We are both biologists, but we didn’t work together right away,” says Dr. Smol. “I was at a meeting in Ottawa and was at his house when we started talking about salmon, as my lab had just that day published a paper in Science showing how we can reconstruct long-term trends in these important fish stocks using our paleo approaches. Jules was interested in chemical pollutants and he reasoned he could track any past contaminant loads that these migrating fish might deposit. We began working together regularly from that point and continued on from there. Our next area of research was Arctic sea birds, which then led to collaborative work with archaeologists, and work on thawing permafrost, and a spectrum of other issues. ”
For example, in a 2010 study, they learned that potent metals like mercury and lead, ingested by Arctic seabirds feeding in the ocean, end up in terrestrial ecosystems that can be tracked in the sediment of polar ponds.
In 2012, the duo analyzed 50 years of bird droppings inside a large decommissioned chimney on the Queen’s campus to provide evidence that DDT and changing bird diet may have played a role in a long-term decline for populations of insect-eating birds in North America.
As a team, they have published over 40 scientific papers, co-authored over 50 conference presentations and supervised a wide range of students.
Their research has enabled policy makers to make knowledgeable and proactive decisions in areas such as regulating contaminant emissions, agricultural runoff, clear-cutting, climate change, protection of fish habitats and air pollution control.
“This award is important to me because our research is often controversial and ‘unpopular’ for certain industries and indeed some politicians,” says Dr. Smol, whose office walls are filled with other national and international honours. “You tend to be taken more seriously when the scientific community recognizes your contributions with awards like this.”
In 2008, the brothers were jointly named Canada’s Environmental Scientists of the Year by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Dr. Smol has won four previous awards from NSERC, including the Herzberg Canada Gold Medal in 2004, awarded to Canada’s top scientist or engineer.
For more information about the Brockhouse Canada Prize visit the website.