Lifetime achievement in fresh-water research

Research excellence

Lifetime achievement in fresh-water research

Queen's researcher John Smol is recognized by the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography for his career impact on aquatic science and education.

By Mikayla Schoner, Communications and Strategic Initiatives Assistant

June 5, 2024


[Dr. John Smol]

Dr. John Smol, Former Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change

Biologist John Smol has joined the ranks of the world’s most renowned aquatic scientists. The Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) recently presented Dr. Smol with the A.C. Redfield Lifetime Achievement Award for his leadership in the development and application of paleolimnology, the reconstruction of past lake environments. The prestigious international award recognizes major, long-term achievements in the study of lakes, rivers and oceans, including research, education, and service to the community and society.

With approximately 4,000 members in nearly 60 different countries, ASLO is the largest scientific society, worldwide, devoted to limnology and oceanography. This award marks Dr. Smol’s fourth recognition from ASLO – having previously won the Hutchinson Medal (mid-career award) in 2007 and the Margalef Award in 2012 for teaching and mentoring, as well as being named an inaugural ASLO Sustaining Fellow.

A prolific career

Dr. Smol (Biology) is recognized as the world’s foremost paleolimnologist. Using lake sediment analysis, gathered from sediment cores – long tubes of mud collected from lakes and sliced into thin layers – he pioneered novel methods for reconstructing historical characteristics of lake ecosystems to better understand how they will respond to future changes and address water quality issues. These sediment-based methods have also been fundamental in identifying water quality problems, monitoring ecosystem fluctuations, and tracking climate change, amongst many other applications.

Smol’s work has set standards for assessing water quality and has significantly contributed to our understanding of historical pH (acidification), eutrophication, heavy metal pollution, changes in animal populations, and climate change. Working with governments around the world, his research influenced environmental policy and provided guidance for mitigating environmental issues.

One recent example, which garnered major media and government attention, showed how Great Slave Lake (sub-Arctic Canada), North America’s deepest lake, has dramatically been altered due to accelerated climate warming. Despite the lake’s importance to local communities, such as the Northwest Territories’ largest Indigenous fishery, little was known about how the lake has been changing over the last ~200 years.  In a study led by PEARL researcher Dr. Kathleen Rȕhland, Smol and his colleagues showed striking ecosystem changes linked to declining ice covers and other climate-related changes.

"Dr. Smol’s lifetime of research and service is exemplary," says Pat Gilbert, ASLO President. "His work shaping and promoting paleolimnology has been critical to managing the health of freshwater ecosystems and will continue to be well into the future."

Recognition and impact

Over his 40-year career, Dr. Smol has received more than 100 awards for his research, teaching, and service, including the Vega Medal, sometimes referred to as equivalent to a Nobel Prize in Geography.  He has also advised over 100 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and is the founder of the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL) at Queen’s.

"I became a member of ASLO when I was 21 years old and so this recognition from the world’s top oceanographic and limnological society is very important to me," says Dr. Smol. "Nonetheless, I sometimes feel like an NHL coach of a team that wins the Stanley Cup, but only I come onto the ice to hold the trophy! The contributions of my students and other collaborators have been remarkable. If I deserve any award, it should be for attracting highly dedicated and hard-working people who enjoy doing important science."

Established by ASLO, the Redfield Award honours aquatic scientists for major, long-term achievements in limnology and oceanography. Named after the influential American oceanographer Alfred C. Redfield, the award recognizes individuals whose work has made significant contributions to the field and has had a lasting impact on society and the scientific community. The award is presented annually at the ASLO summer meeting.

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