David Schindler

Evolution and Ecology

Schindler identified detergent phosphates as a pollutant killing lakes in the 1960s, and pinpointed acid rain as a widespread cause of fish deaths in the 1970s & '80s. Schindler now warns that rapid exploitation of Alberta's oil sands is polluting the Athabaska River, and recommends that oil sands extraction be monitored more effectively.

"The days when we can afford to sit in our ivory towers and put our bound volumes on the shelves of our libraries, and then expect them to have any impact on how ecosystems are managed, are long gone."

David Schindler came from a farming community in northern Minnesota, but despite his small town roots, the academically and athletically gifted student won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England. Twice a day, as was the tradition at Oxford, the young Schindler met for coffee or tea with a gaggle of fellow graduate students and renowned scientists, including Nobel Laureate Nikko Tinbergen. These gatherings of brilliant minds led to heated arguments nearly every day. 

Popular topics of debate included the relative merits of British versus American approaches to ecology; the former heavily community-based, the latter more focused on process. Other hotly contested topics included the importance of natural selection in competition among species, and the roles of air pollution and animal behavior in ecology. Among the graduate students frequently participating was Richard Dawkins, now famous for his many popular books on evolution and genetics. Schindler fondly recalls that during these informal but highly educational meetings, if there was something you didn't understand very well, someone would tap you on the shoulder and recommend a book or a paper to read. Schindler recalls that it was a pretty eye-opening experience to go to England to work with these well-known ecologists whose work he had previously only read about. 

After graduating from Oxford, Schindler had postdoctoral and professorship offers from the University of Michigan and Yale, but turned down both for a job at Trent University in Peterborough, a small town in Ontario not unlike the lake country of his childhood. From Trent, Schindler was soon lured by a unique and exciting opportunity to participate in an experimental lakes project that was just starting up. Whole-lake experiments were unprecedented at the time and Schindler found it too good an opportunity to pass up. 

Hiring what Schindler later described as “a stellar cast of experienced scientists,” J.R. Vallentyne, head of the project and previously a professor at Cornell University, enlisted Schindler to lead one section of the project at the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). Schindler says, “I have always viewed this as odd because I was one of the most junior scientists in the group. But in those first few years, most of the required work to get the project underway was not very sophisticated,” he explains.

Schindler’s years at the ELA were to yield some of the most influential ecological studies of our era. Data from those collaborative experiments, combined with the unstinting determination of Schindler and others to bring their implications to the attention of policy-makers, brought about important international environmental protection to prevent pollution. Measures such as phosphorus control to mitigate against the impact of eutrophication - a process that starves lakes of oxygen through rampant algae growth in freshwater lakes – can be directly linked to the work of Schindler and his colleagues. Later, working on the impacts of acid rain and a myriad of other human perturbations affecting freshwater lakes, Schindler’s work has been recognized by many national and international awards including the Order of Canada in 2004.

Schindler’s passion for ecology has inspired numerous graduate students and two of his three children to pursue careers in limnology - the study of freshwater ecosystems. Asked about how his children were introduced to the world of freshwater ecology, Schindler recounts that when doing field research during the summers, his children would join him, living in a cabin at the field station for several months of the year. Often he needed a field assistant, and he would take one of them along. “We would do some fun things along the way like fishing or birdwatching.” His kids would help with taking notes, holding equipment, handing him collection bottles to fill, and so on. So “they learned the trade, so to speak, at a pretty early age,” he says.

Schindler's love of the outdoors extends beyond his professional career to his personal hobbies. His childhood love of fishing continues to this day, and until recently his household included a sizable kennel of sled dogs–nearly 100 at one stage. Schindler says he had always been interested in sled dogs, but in the early 1980s it was his kids who twisted his arm. After one of his favorite hunting dogs died the day before Christmas, Schindler bought a sled dog puppy to make his kids happy. That soon led to a sled, and before long participation in a local sled dog race. Schindler began talking to the pros, and was soon hooked on the sport. It turned out to be a good athletic activity for all of his children -- one he feels is “much preferable to team sports,” Schindler says. 

Schindler's sled dog racing days ended about 10 years ago, although he still has five as pets. The sport has become of victim of climate change, Schindler explains, with very few high-profile races left in Alberta. And it’s not so easy to travel with a large pack of dogs for races elsewhere. 

Now working half-time in his endowed Chair position, Schindler spends much of his time at his rural home about 100km west of Edmonton, a location he says has been extremely convenient for his recent studies on alpine lakes. He often collaborates with his wife, University of Alberta wetlands professor Suzanne Bayley. “In this day of electronic connection I think it’s fair to claim that I get more writing and research work done at home than I do in the laboratory,” says Schindler. 

Schindler devotes a significant portion of his time to communicating his science to the public and to policy-makers, most recently bringing to light flawed water quality monitoring schemes at Alberta’s Oil Sands. He recently shared his concerns at a presentation to the Canadian Senate.

Asked about the role of scientists in policy-making, Schindler thinks there is much room for improvement. “The days when we can afford to sit in our ivory tower and put our bindings on the shelves of ivory tower libraries -- and then expect them to have any impact on how ecosystems are managed -- are long gone,” he says.


As a young scientist ...

Growing up in Barnesville, a small town in northwestern Minnesota, David Schindler spent as much time as he could between his grandparents’ farm and the nearby lakes, avoiding what he describes as “boring urban life.” In that landscape of lakes and farmland, Schindler’s interest in fishing and sense of wonder about his natural surroundings was kindled early. “My earliest memory, probably, is fishing,” says Schindler, now a renowned limnologist and Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta. One of his uncles was an avid fisherman, and when not excelling as a talented athlete on his high school’s American football team, Schindler devoted as much spare time as he could to his beloved hobby: fishing. 

“I can remember a lot of nights that I spent fishing with my uncle. We would usually leave after he finished work. The lakes were very poorly developed in those days. We’d usually rent a leaky rowboat from a farmer – they usually charged 50 cents or something for an evening. The main prey we were after in those days were walleye  and also Northern pike. Walleye tend to move in at dusk to feed, and feed all night, so sometimes those adventures would last ‘til the wee hours of the morning. I really have fond memories of those times. We’d row out somewhere and anchor….and we’d hang a minnow or a lure in the water and just wait, and watch the sun go down and listen to the waves lapping on the boat. It was a very peaceful existence.”

An interest in fish and their habitats was to become not just a hobby but also a successful and highly influential career for Schindler. But Schindler’s career in limnology almost didn’t happen. In consultation with high school career counselors, his interest in the outdoors and high aptitude in mathematics and science were recognized. But he was advised that career prospects in biology were limited. “They said the only real career choice for you in biology is as a high school teacher,” says Schindler, a job that didn’t interest him in the least. They advised him to go to medical or engineering school. The prospect of spending up to 24 hours a day inside a hospital didn’t appeal to Schindler, so he studied engineering, aided by a university football scholarship. 

“I didn’t discover that there were careers beyond that until I was a second year student and got a job working for an ecologist -- by accident because he was looking for someone with a background in physics,” says Schindler.

At that time, bomb calorimetry, a technique used to determine the energy content of organisms, was all the rage, according to Schindler. He was hired as a summer lab assistant for limnology professor Gabriel Comita at North Dakota State University in Fargo. Comita wanted to do some experiments, but needed someone with a physics background to run the calorimeter to determine the energy content of various aquatic invertebrates. Schindler had plenty of prior experience with calorimetry as part of his engineering training, and gladly accepted the job. With the university located very close to his hometown of Barnesville, Minnesota, the summer job allowed him to live at home, save money, and be close to his beloved lakes. 

In those pre-electronic days before automated temperature measurements, Schindler would have to take temperature readings from the calorimeter every few minutes, and in between measurements, he’d scan Comita’s bookshelf, picking out titles that piqued his interest. The first book he read was the Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, by Charles Elton, an Oxford professor widely acknowledged as the father of modern population and community ecology. He was also intrigued by subsequent book titles: Treatise on Limnology, by G. Evelyn Hutchinson, and Animal Behaviour, by Nikko Tinbergen. These summer reads had a profound impact on Schindler, who came to realize that his high school counselors had been misinformed about opportunities in biology, and that a career in limnology was his calling. 

Mentioning to Comita on a whim how fun it must be to study with great minds like Elton or Tinbergen, Comita told Schindler about the Rhodes Scholarship, a scholarship that to this day brings outstanding students from around the world to the University of Oxford. Schindler’s application was successful, and after receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1962, Schindler headed to Oxford, England, to meet in person some of those famous names that he’d first seen on book spines on his supervisor’s bookshelf.

Asked what it was like to go from reading the work of these well-known ecologists to actually working with them, Schindler says, “It was a pretty interesting experience. I’d never been outside of the central USA, and to go to a foreign country and a foreign school was pretty traumatic. But I quickly started to find it very stimulating and a lot of fun.” 


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