Dr. Chris Glover joins Athabasca River Basin Research Institute (ARBRI) and AU alongside fellow CAIP Research Chair, Dr. Junye Wang, as a member of the Faculty of Science and Technology. He will collaborate with colleagues, both from within the university and externally, to advance the knowledge of the Athabasca River Basin and watershed biology.
Dr. Glover holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Science from King’s College (London) in the U.K. and, for the past seven years, has worked as senior lecturer and researcher at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand. During his tenure at the University of Canterbury, Dr. Glover has maintained and led a comprehensive research program determining the physiological mechanisms by which contaminants exert their effects on aquatic species.
On Nov. 23 and 24, both Dr. Glover and Dr. Wang will be present at the annual Athabasca River Basin Research Institute (ARBRI) Days 2015 Collaborative Research Conference in Edmonton, joining more than 20 other research scientists speaking on a wide range of sustainability research issues within the Athabasca River Basin.
Q&A with Dr. Chris Glover, CAIP Research Chair in Hydroecology and Environmental Health
Just a month into his new research posting, AU Newsroom editor Heidi Staseson spoke with Dr. Glover about joining AU; the Athabasca River Basin (and his research expertise in aquatic systems and toxicology); science in general, and how New Zealand is much more than Tolkien-based pop culture (hint: it’s also home to HBO’s Flight of the Conchords).
HS: Welcome to AU!
CG: It’s cold.
HS: With ARBRI Days around the corner, what are your initial thoughts about the research centering around the river basin?
CG: ARBRI is an amazing initiative. Clearly, there has been great work done in bringing together a lot of disconnected literature and research and trying to coalesce them for a common cause. One of the characteristics of research in the Athabasca region is that in the past it’s been very fractured, with different people doing different things, in different parts, with nobody coming together and talking about it. I think ARBRI and ‘ARBRI Days,’ by correlation, is a good opportunity for that to happen. It keeps everybody informed and it certainly contributes significantly to the idea of people working toward similar kinds of outcomes.
HS: What’s happening in the Athabasca River Basin? Will your scientific research take you right in there?
CG: There’s a fair amount of activity focused on the Athabasca River, for sure, and yes, that’s the plan. I’m likely to spend more than a little time focusing on the watershed, doing “getting-your-hands-dirty” research. As for the research here, there’s a lot of expertise that is capable of supporting the work that I do. I think that’s absolutely important. Everywhere [I’ve been], there’s an assortment of different people who can make different contributions to the work we do.HS: Are you screening for disease-causing microbes etc.?
CG: No, that’s unlikely. Most of my work will focus in the space between what’s going into the river and the effects on the ecosystem as a whole. I’ll look at how contaminants and other stressors associated with the river basin are going to impact the river quality and organisms that live in there.
HS: What lurks in the River Basin right now?
CG: Like your average ecosystem, you’ve got your microbes, your invertebrate animals—small things that dart around that people don’t even see—like little crustaceans and copepods, water fleas and fly larvae.
Then of course there’s the fish.
HS: What kinds of fish live in the Athabasca River Basin?
CG: There is a variety of fish—your salmonids such as trout, your walleye etc. There are some key concerns associated with the fish too. The First Nations communities, and other residents, eat the fish, and because what goes into the river can eventually end up in fish, my research could also include looking at effects on humans and mammals from fish consumption.
ARBRI is an amazing initiative. Clearly, there has been great work done in bringing together a lot of disconnected literature and research and trying to coalesce them for a common cause. One of the characteristics of research in the Athabasca region is that in the past it’s been very fractured, with different people doing different things, in different parts, with nobody coming together and talking about it. I think ARBRI and ‘ARBRI Days,’ by correlation, is a good opportunity for that to happen. It keeps everybody informed and it certainly contributes significantly to the idea of people working toward similar kinds of outcomes.”
HS: What is the contaminant concern in the river basin? Is oil one of them?
CG: Yes. In Athabasca there are a [whole host] of contaminants, really. The oil sands are potentially leaching in a variety of different kinds of contaminants. These are an example of chemical contaminants but there are also what we call “stressors,” which include variables such as changing temperature, changing water flows—those kinds of things that are often associated with industrial processes that will impact upon river-basin organisms.
You’ve also got things like mining activities, and agriculture (which runs off pesticides and nutrients), forestry and pulp and paper milling. So there are a lot of different kinds of point sources that are contributing various contaminants and stressors into that river. And where you go along the river will determine which kinds of contaminants or stressors are going to be present.
Really, I think the big challenge with working in a river basin like the Athabasca is the changing nature of the river as you go from one end to the other. It’s not a small piece of water.HS: What made you want to come and do this important research at Athabasca?
CG: There are a few reasons. First, the fact I could focus on the research was a big bonus. And the research chair position was certainly a big draw card in that it will allow me to focus on research for a period of seven years, with limited other kinds of distractions. That is a huge benefit.
Secondly, I’m somebody who doesn’t like to let the grass grow underneath my feet. With this position I’m kind of throwing myself into a different environment with new challenges—and there are some pretty big challenges here! And a lot of the pull-factor to come here is based around the challenge of working in a system that has lots of different kinds of things happening to it.
And thirdly, one of the benefits of working in the field I work in is people are really open to collaborating and throwing resources together in order to achieve goals. You asked about reasons to come to AU—well, for the work that I do, Canada is certainly one of the best places in the world to do it in because there are a large number of other people doing similar things that are all willing to work together. Obviously, that’s a significant big positive.
Get out of your Hobbit Hole, Canada!
HS: And the research you’ll be doing here is certainly a big contrast from New Zealand, I’d imagine?
CG: Yes and no. I’m not a stranger to Canadian science; I did a post-doc in Canada for a couple of years and I’ve spent time in various places around the world. So it’s not a huge change in that the basic kinds of problems faced by water bodies are global in nature. Sustainability of water resources is a big issue, for sure. Of course, we don’t have the oil sands in New Zealand. But a lot of the other impacts are similar.
Where there is a big difference between New Zealand and Canada is in the area of research funding. In New Zealand, nobody wants to fund fundamental research looking at environmental problems. They turn a blind eye to it. Whereas in Canada I think there are a lot more opportunities to fund your research because people are more willing to acknowledge environmental problems— and so are willing to do something about it.
Also, New Zealanders sometimes object to being compared to characters in Lord of the Rings—although basically almost everybody from New Zealand was in it. I went to a car rental agency in Edmonton the other day and the sales person asked, ‘Where are you from?’ When I told her she said, ‘Oh, I love Lord of the Rings!’
That was literally the first thing that came out of her mouth. So we spent five minutes talking about Lord of the Rings—that’s all she really cared about; that’s all she knew about New Zealand.”
HS: What do you hope to come out of your research on the river basin?
CG: Science, unfortunately, moves incrementally slowly. To have some kind of broad goal like solving all the problems is just probably never going to happen. If we can make some strides toward understanding how chemical contamination and other kinds of stressors influence the health of the organisms that live in and rely on the river basin—then that’s probably as much as one could hope for.
…for the work that I do, Canada is certainly one of the best places in the world to do it in because there are a large number of other people doing similar things that are all willing to work together. Obviously, that’s a significant big positive.”
HS: So how do you assuage the fears among the communities that want the answers now?
CG: The defining maxim of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. But unfortunately there’s a hundred other factors that are important beyond how much of something nasty you consume. This holds for human consumption of contaminated fish, but is also true of effects on the animals that inhabit the river.
For example, if we look at the case of methylmercury: It was identified in the 1950s and 1960s as something pretty nasty. Yet now, 60 years down the track, we really aren’t that much closer to telling you “this is how much mercury you can eat before you die,” partly because we know so little about those other factors. A lot of what my research does is about trying to learn more about what effects those “other factors” are having on toxicological outcomes.
That is probably a terribly depressing and morbid answer but the reality is that it’s just a function of the complexity of the world we live in, and the complexity of the human body.
HS: But you’re still determined to make these strides?
CG: Well you know, you do what you can. Any little bit is going to help. ♦AUN