Queen’s professor turns 40 years of playing with mud into prestigious Vega Medal | CBC News

Queen’s professor turns 40 years of playing with mud into prestigious Vega Medal | CBC News

Playing around in the mud is something many people did when they were kids, but John Smol has made a career out of it.

The biology professor at Queen’s University is an expert in paleolimnology. The second part of that title refers to the study of lakes and rivers, while the first points to his specialty — reconstructing their history based on sediment.

“Every lake has a history book at the bottom,” he said, adding it provides a record of what lived in the lake and how the ecosystem around it has changed over time.

His work has taken him to some of the most remote places in the world, from the High Arctic to Antarctic.

“Basically, we play with mud, but we play with it very precisely,” Smol said with a laugh.

That playtime has been rewarding both scientifically and, if his office is any measure, in terms of prestige.

Certificates and honorary degrees crowd the walls. Medals and trophies weigh down the shelves.

There’s even a sword hanging in the corner.

A ‘prolific’ scientist

Now Smol is going to have to make room for one more honour — he’s been announced as the winner of the Vega Medal 2023.

It’s a prestigious prize that’s awarded by the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography (SSAG) about every three years.

Smol said he feels like a bit of a fraud based on the company he’s about to join.

“It’s heroes I’ve had since I was a teenager, like Roald Amundsen from the Northwest Passage, Ernest Shackleton, the anthropologist Louis Leakey, I mean, the list is just unbelievable.”

Smol is shown working with a core of sediment pulled from the bottom of a pond on Ellesmere Island. (Marianne Douglas)

The recognition is humbling Smol said, adding a lot of the work has been done by dedicated students and colleagues.

A citation on the SSAG website describes him as one of the “foremost experts” when it comes to studying long-term environmental changes in lakes and rivers.

It notes Smol’s record includes more than 670 journal publications and chapters, as well as 20 books, stating he’s “unquestionably one of the most prolific scientists in paleolimnology.”

Cult of Smol

A small placard outside Smol’s office offers the lab’s formal name: Paleoecological Environmental Assessment & Research Lab (PEARL).

But three words typed out below in bold, black letters highlight how many really refer to it: Cult of Smol.

His office may be packed with 40 years’ worth of prizes, but Smol points out one piece as particularly special.

It’s a framed drawing detailing a family tree of sorts, listing all of his students and graduate students as of 2016. It would need a few more branches now, he joked.

A black and white image of a tree, which appears to be hand-drawn. On each leaf and branch is the name of a student who has passed through the lab.
This image of the ‘the Smol Tree’ was presented to the professor by his students in 2016. It shows the links and legacy connecting those who have worked in the PEARL lab. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

That kind of growth and connection is one of the things that has kept first-year PhD student Emma Graves at Queen’s.

“I really liked the community that we have and the family so to speak,” she explained. “That’s why I’ve stuck around.”

She described Smol as a friendly and kind supervisor who always finds time to check in with students.

Sarah Waldron, a master’s student, said many of her mentors were former “PEARL-ites,” the informal term they use to refer to the people who make up their lab.

A woman with reddish-brown hair smiles next to another woman with dark brown hair and gold hoop earrings. Behind them is a wall with shelves packed with books, folders and boxes.
Masters student Sarah Waldron, left, and first-year PhD student Emma Graves say Smol is a friendly and attentive supervisor. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

She and Graves teased Smol about the trophies cluttering up his office.

“The walls are getting very full. It’ll probably start bleeding over into our office area, I think,” Waldron said with a smile.

“But it’s inspirational.”

A new suit, fit for a king

Smol said he was actually on his way to accept yet another award in Argentina when he received an the email announcing he’d won the Vega, adding that even after so many prizes he still thought someone might be playing a joke on him.

“I was very, very surprised,” he said.

A paper placard is shown on a white brick wall. In the background is a cork board covered in photos of past students and studies.
A sign outside the offices for the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment & Research Lab includes an alternate description: ‘Cult of Smol.’ (Dan Taekema/CBC)

He’s set to travel to Sweden this week, where the medal will be presented by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden on April 21. Smol said his wife insisted he buy a new suit for the occasion.

Even after so many years in the field, and so many accolades, Smol said he plans to keep working and passing lessons along to the next generation of scholars.

“I know what we’re doing is important. That’s a big motivator,” he said.

“Sadly, new problems are always arising, so I don’t expect my students will run out of work in the future.”

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