University of Saskatchewan Professor Jeff McDonnell receives the Distinguished Researcher Award from Karen Chad, Vice-President Research, at Fall Convocation on Oct. 27 at TCU Place. (Photo: Dave Stobbe)

SENS/GIWS hydrologist earns Distinguished Researcher Award

World-leading field hydrologist Jeff McDonnell received the University of Saskatchewan Distinguished Researcher Award at Fall Convocation on Oct. 27.

McDonnell arrived at the U of S in 2012 as a professor of hydrology in the School of Environment and Sustainability (SENS) and is the associate director of the Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS). Today, the U of S is the top-rated water research institute in Canada and one of the best in the world. Not only is McDonnell a renowned scholar, but a dedicated mentor to young researchers.

GIWS communications specialist Mark Ferguson asked McDonnell about his career, his award, and his continuing dedication to inspire.

MF: When did you realize that you wanted to dedicate your life to hydrologic research?

JM: My “ta-da” moment came in June, 1981, when I was 40 feet up a tree, escaping a grizzly bear in the Yukon. At the time, I was studying geophysics at the University of Toronto. I was employed as a summer student stationed near Faro, in a three-man “fly-in camp.” After a summer of many such grizzly bear encounters, I returned to Toronto in the fall, changed my major to physical geography and focused on hydrology as a kinder, gentler and less remote subject matter. Growing up in Ontario doing canoe trips and camping adventures, I thought that I was an outdoorsman; working in the Yukon showed me I had a lot to learn. This too affected why I chose to do my PhD in New Zealand—a country where the only native mammal is a harmless bat!

MF: You are highly regarded for your efforts to motivate and educate young professionals and researchers. Why is this so important to you?

JM: My greatest career joys come from mentoring young researchers and helping launch their careers. I appreciate how lucky I am to continually work with young, sharp minds. All of my students and post-docs have been willing to follow me on my long-term journey to answer three research questions: Where does water go when it rains? What flow path does water take to the stream? And how old is the water in the channel? As a thank you for their willingness to make my questions their own, I feel that I owe them my utmost help to launch their careers. I’m so darn proud of all of them—many of whom are now leaders in our field, in Canada and around the world.

MF: Does the university environment look/feel different to you now than when you began your career?

JM: My first academic position was as a tenure-track assistant professorship at Utah State University. I remember my first several years as a frenetic ride of teaching, research, service to the university and to outside professional organizations. Everything was fun and exciting. I worked most nights and weekends. Luckily, as the years wore on, I found a way to work less and increase family time as kids came along. I think that my early experience is still common today among young faculty. Perhaps the thing that has changed is the competition to get onto the tenure track. The ratio of the number of PhDs awarded to number of tenure-track assistant professors continues to worsen. As a result, the number of papers needed to get a job and the number of post-doc years seem to increase along with it. Young scientists today need luck on their side and, what Beveridge (1950, The Art of Scientific Investigation) calls ‘a spirit of indomitable perseverance’. This latter quality is what has characterized nearly all successful scientists, then and now.

MF: Are there recent accomplishments you feel have led to you receiving this award?

JM: All accomplishments related to this award are squarely linked to my students, post-docs and technicians in my lab. We’ve had a few good years since my arrival at U of S, learning new things about how water is stored, mixed and released in catchments.

MF: What were some of the significant milestones in your life (academically or personally)?

JM: Returning to Canada and joining the Global Institute for Water Security and the School of Environment and Sustainability was the defining moment of my academic career. My kids had both gone off to university by then and my wife and I were free to travel. I’ve spent about six months a year since then away from Canada being a water ambassador for the U of S, striving to create linkages at universities around the world. Returning to the Canadian academic culture has increased my time to think, unlike the United States where professors are on nine-month contracts and expected to bring in summer salary with a multitude of grants. Canadian professors enjoy much more time for science. We’re lucky to be in Canada.

MF: Where are we at as a university/institute/program in terms of water research, and where do we need to go?

JM: There is a very long history of excellence in water resources research at the U of S going back to people like Don Gray, Vit Klemes and others. Senior water leaders like Howard Wheater, John Pomeroy, Lee Barbour, Jim Hendry, Garth Vanderkamp, Al Pietroniro and others have helped push the university ahead and our dozen or so new water hires in the past 10 years have helped us achieve the No.1 ranking in Canada in Water Resources, No.9 in North America and No.18 worldwide. But, we have potential to be No.1 in the world within the next 10 years. To do this, we will need co-ordinated efforts led by our terrific new director of the Global Institute for Water Security, Jay Famiglietti (together with senior leadership at the U of S) to make several new, strategic appointments, forge new international partnerships and create research networks that can overcome our isolated geography. It is terrifically exciting to help play a small role in all this.

MF: Anyone you would like to thank?

JM: Beyond my students, post-docs and technicians, all my thanks go to my family. I had the great good fortune of ridiculously supportive parents. While I was the first in my family to attend university, my dad valued poetry, was the world’s best speller and could complete a New York Times crossword puzzle in minutes flat. He finished school at age 12 and went to sea at 16 years old as a merchant seaman after the Second World War. He instilled in me the value of adventure and hard work. My mother grew up on a small farm in central Ontario. She pushed me in music and, despite my early interests in everything but scholastics, she was a never-ending font of support. She instilled in me the value of achievement. I have found this combination of values instilled by my parents to be an unending source of motivation. Of course, I must also thank my wife and children for their tolerance of my research passions and travel schedule. Luckily, family travel associated with my work has been a hallmark of my career, when the kids were young and now, as my wife and I work internationally to promote the Global Institute for Water Security abroad. She’s as much a cheerleader for U of S and Saskatoon as I am.

MF: Words of wisdom: a quote from an author or poet that you would like to share?

JM: Jimmy Buffett has been my spiritual guide since the 1970s. His songs resonate with my sense of adventure, my love of sailing and generally the goal of sucking the marrow out of life. A key element of his music and my life philosophy is knowing the shortness of life and that life’s best moments are often small, unmarked and uncelebrated. These realizations help keep any science success (or awards!) in perspective, knowing that the real joys in life lie with family and friends. And together, wandering and following Jimmy Buffett’s La Vie Dansante.

MF: Anything you’d like to add?

JM: Nothing, other than what a privilege it is to be a university professor and to have friends all around the world. The University of Saskatchewan is an incredible place where deans, vice-presidents and the president all “get” water and support us in ways unimaginable at other universities. Eau Canada! 

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