Receiving the prestigious Vega Medal

Research Awards

Receiving the prestigious Vega Medal

Queen’s researcher John Smol has been recognized for his lifetime achievements with the Vega Medal, a Nobel Prize-equivalent in geography, awarded by the King of Sweden.

April 24, 2023


[Photo of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden and Dr. John Smol]
His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden (left) bestows the 2023 Vega Medal to Dr. John Smol (right)

John Smol has joined the ranks of some of the world’s most adventurous, and well-decorated, scientists. The Queen’s professor and former Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change is now a member of an elite group of explorers, oceanographers, geographers, and anthropologists bestowed with the Vega Medal. Sometimes referred to as equivalent to a "Nobel Prize in Geography," the Vega Medal is awarded by the Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography (SSAG) every two to three years to an outstanding geographer or anthropologist with international renown. Dr. Smol collected his prize on April 21 from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, the society’s chief patron. When announcing this year’s recipient, SSAG described Dr. Smol as "unquestionably one of the most prolific scientists in paleolimnology, and certainly the most prolific regarding northern lake systems."

"This is a proud moment for Queen’s and for Canada," says Nancy Ross, says Vice-Principal (Research). "With a career spanning forty years, Dr. Smol continues to advance research that is changing the way we understand human impact on the environment. The Vega is an outstanding recognition of his tireless commitment to research and protecting the planet."

A prolific career

[Art of Research photo by Dr. John Smol capturing the Canadian High Arctic]
Queen's Art of Research photo: Disappearing Ecosystems: High Arctic Ponds Evaporating with Global Warming by Dr. John Smol at Cape Hershel, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut.

Dr. Smol (Biology) is recognized as one of the foremost experts in the study of long-term global environmental changes to lakes and rivers. He has contributed to our understanding of the impacts of pressing environmental issues, such as lake eutrophication, acidification, contaminant transport, fisheries management, and climate change with a special focus on the Arctic. As a paleolimnologist, Dr. Smol reconstructs the history of lakes and rivers by analyzing their sediment to track the effects of climate change, human impacts, and natural processes. His work not only helped put the discipline on the map with major scientific breakthroughs, but provided a new understanding of humans’ interactions with the environment that would go on to influence policy work and regulations, such as with acid rain. As the founder and co-director of Queen’s Paleoecological Environmental Assessment & Research Lab (PEARL) he also trained numerous students and researchers who have gone on to blaze their own paths in science, policy development, and industry.

[Photo of Jason LaTorre and Dr. John Smol]
His Excellency Jason LaTorre, Ambassador of Canada to Sweden (left) congratulated Dr. Smol (right) ahead of the medal ceremony.

"John has been immensely productive, and his research has covered many of the big environmental issues, such as acidification, eutrophication, and climate change," says Dr. Richard Bindler, Umeå University (Sweden) who nominated Dr. Smol. "He has also mentored individual scientists, from students to early career scientists, but also beyond that with his incredible support to the paleolimnology community as a whole. His contributions to environmental research extend far beyond the boundaries of his own research."

Over his 40-year career Dr. Smol has been awarded more than 70 awards with international renown. For example, he has won the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal for Science and Engineering which celebrates Canada’s most outstanding scientists and awards a grant of up to $1M. Other career highlights include being named a Fellow of the Royal Society (UK) whose members include Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking. As well as receiving the Polar Medal in 2019 from Canada’s Governor General for "extraordinary services in the polar regions and Canada’s north." Dr. Smol has also been acknowledged by Canadian Geographic as one of nine “Canadians changing our world” in 2013 and Nature’s Canada’s Top Mid-Career Scientific Mentor in 2010. His prolific contributions to advancing his field include more than 670 journal publications and chapters, 20 books, 1100 conference engagements, and 150 invited keynotes and plenary lectures. Dr. Smol founded and served as Editor of the Journal of Paleolimnology and is currently Editor-in-Chief of Environmental Reviews as well as Series Editor for the Developments in Paleoenvironmental Research Series.

"I was absolutely delighted and totally surprised by the notification that I had won the Vega Medal, having no idea that I was nominated," says Dr. Smol. "It is totally humbling to see the list of past winners, which includes many of my heroes from childhood, such as polar explorers Ernest Shackleton (1910) and Roald Amundsen (1913), and anthropologists such as Louis Leakey (1963). I am very pleased to see that paleolimnology, which was once seen as a very esoteric scientific field, now has this recognition. In my case, this is because I have always had a remarkably dedicated group of graduate students and other colleagues."

History of the Vega Medal

[Vega Medal]
Dr. Smol's Vega Medal.

Established in 1878, SSAG has organized expeditions and sponsored research that has helped us to better understand our world and its environment. Welcoming researchers from geography and anthropology-related disciplines, SSAG continues to support research that promotes the development of these fields while stewarding connections between their scientists and the public. The Vega Medal was created in 1881 to mark the anniversary of Adolf Erik Nordenskiold’s Vega expedition as it returned to Stockholm after navigating the Northeast Passage. Since then, there have been 78 recipients of the medal ranging from famous oceanographers to paleontologists, and climate scientists. Other medal holders with a connection to Canada include Sir John Murray, considered the father of modern oceanography, awarded in 1912 and John Ross Mackay, leader in Canadian permafrost studies, awarded in 1986.

After receiving the Vega Medal from the King, Dr. Smol was then honoured the same day at the Vega Symposium where he gave the opening keynote on "Lakes in the Anthropocene: Using the past to better prepare for the future." To learn more about Dr. Smol’s research, visit the PEARL website.

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