People & Culture

Limnologist John Smol to be awarded prestigious Vega Medal

The Queen’s University biology professor and Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society is recognized for his achievements in studying global environmental change

  • Jan 11, 2023
  • 666 words
  • 3 minutes
John Smol in Antarctica. (Photo courtesy John Smol)
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John Smol is one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of long-term environmental changes to lakes and rivers. As a professor in the Department of Biology and the School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., Smol, together with his team of researchers and students, has been working on many limnological and paleoecological research projects as part of his commitment to studying global environmental change. Now, he is being recognized with his field’s most prestigious award: the Vega Medal.

Named for the SS Vega, the ship that polar explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld used to make his historic first transit of the Northeast Passage along the northern coast of Eurasia, and awarded by the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography, the Vega Medal honours outstanding achievement in the field of geography. “John Smol is unquestionably one of the most prolific scientists in paleolimnology, and certainly the most prolific regarding northern lake systems,” wrote SSAG in announcing the award.

For Smol, this award acknowledges his hard work and commitment to bettering the planet. “It’s a great job being a scientist. You can actually follow what you think is important,” he says. “You can actually go investigate the natural world around you, but of course, you hope that the findings you have are more than just fundamental but that they can be used for policymakers to make evidence-based decisions for politicians and so forth.”

Throughout his career, Smol has authored 670 journal publications and book chapters, more than 20 books, and made more than 1,100 conference contributions, as well as 150 invited keynotes and plenary lectures. In 2010, he was chosen by Nature as Canada’s top mid-career science mentor and was also made a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. In 2013, Smol was named an Officer of the Order of Canada and received the 2013 Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievements in Northern Research. With more than 50 other awards and counting, Smol has been recognized by a diverse range of organizations across the globe and continues to be a change-maker in topics such as the Anthropocene and how climate change is impacting the Arctic. 

Even before he was named a Fellow of the RCGS, his achievements were recognized by the Society. In 2008, the Society named Smol and his brother Jules Blais as  Canada’s Environmental Scientists of the Year. The Society also named him as one of Canada’s Greatest Explorers, and he was awarded the Erebus Medal for his participation in the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition. He went on to receive the Society’s Bergmann Medal for Excellence in Arctic Leadership and Science, as well as the Massey Medal, awarded to recognize outstanding career achievement in the exploration, development or description of the geography of Canada. Smol is also a Canadian Geographic Adventures Ambassador, which is a role that provides additional resources alongside local guides for trips offered by Canadian Geographic Adventures

The Vega Medal was introduced in 1881 and is presented every three years. “The list of past winners is totally humbling; many are my heroes,” says Smol when asked about the recognition. “I almost feel like a fraud!” Past winners include polar explorers Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton and archaeologist Louis Leakey. 

Smol currently directs the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory (PEARL) at Queen’s University, consisting of around 40 researchers who are using paleolimnological and other techniques to provide historical perspectives on environmental change, including long-term effects of lake eutrophication, acidification, contaminant transport, calcium decline, fisheries management and climate change in the Arctic. “I would like to emphasize that many of the discoveries we made aren’t made directly by me but made by an extremely dedicated group of graduate students and colleagues,” says Smol. 

The Vega Medal will be presented to Smol in April by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. 

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