Dr. Jeffrey McDonnell, a faculty member in the School of Environment and Sustainability and associate director of the Global Institute for Water Security
Dr. Jeffrey McDonnell (PhD) says the most rewarding aspect of his career at USask has been working with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. (Photo: Submitted)

USask hydrologist passionate about teaching and research

Dr. Jeffrey McDonnell (PhD), a faculty member in the School of Environment and Sustainability and associate director of the Global Institute for Water Security, has been honoured with the title of distinguished professor.

By Shannon Boklaschuk

Dr. Jeffrey McDonnell (PhD) says he is “bursting with gratitude” after being awarded the title of distinguished professor.

McDonnell—the associate director of the Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS) and a professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability (SENS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask)—was one of seven USask faculty members to be named a distinguished professor in 2022.

McDonnell was recognized alongside fellow award recipients Dr. John Giesy (PhD), from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine; Dr. Lee Barbour (PhD), from the College of Engineering (Emeritus); Dr. Alan Rosenberg (MD), from the College of Medicine; Dr. M. Gabriela Mángano (PhD), from the College of Arts and Science; Prof. Alison Norlen, from the College of Arts and Science; and Dr. Valerie Thompson (PhD), from the College of Arts and Science.

Dr. Airini (PhD), USask’s provost and vice-president academic, said the Distinguished Professorship Program was created to honour and celebrate outstanding achievements in research, scholarly, or artistic work by USask faculty or emeriti.

“The seven scholars that were selected for this prestigious honour in 2022 have made remarkable contributions to USask and to their academic disciplines,” Airini said. “Their achievements inspire us, and they are illuminating USask’s goal to be the university the world needs.”

Prior to coming to USask, McDonnell earned a PhD in forest hydrology at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, after earning a Master of Science degree in watershed ecosystems from Trent University and a Bachelor of Science in physical geography from the University of Toronto. His research areas include hillslope hydrology, runoff processes and modelling, isotope hydrology, and hydrological theory. 

In 2015, McDonnell was honoured with the J.W. George Ivany Award for Internationalization during USask’s Fall Convocation. That same year, he was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada—one of this country’s highest honours. In 2018, McDonnell received the Distinguished Research Award during Fall Convocation, and he was named a fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2022.

On Campus News recently asked McDonnellwho joined USask as a faculty member in 2012about his new distinguished professor title and his career as a teacher and researcher. 

On Campus News: How did it feel to be named a distinguished professor?

Jeffrey McDonnell: I was simply delighted with the news that I had been named a distinguished professor at USask. The water program at USask is second to none in Canada, and I know that any success I have had here has been due to both the terrific colleagues I have across campus and my many graduate students, post-docs and research technicians. So, this recognition is as much about them as it is me. 

OCN: Why did you decide to join USask as a faculty member?

JD: The program that (founding director of GIWS) Dr. Howard Wheater (PhD) was building as part of his Canada Excellence Research Chair was impossible not to sign on to, especially as a Canadian who had worked outside of Canada for almost 25 years. The pull “home” was simply too much to resist. 

OCN: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career at USask?

JD: The most rewarding aspect of my career at USask has been working with graduate students and post-docs. They are a source of great joy and satisfaction, and I have been blessed with so many who have gone on to lead the field. For many of them, the student has become the teacher—perhaps the most rewarding outcome of all for me. 

OCN: You are a professor in SENS. What do you enjoy about teaching?

JD: I do love teaching and have leaned into online teaching through—and now after—the pandemic. My teaching is exclusively at the graduate level, and I have found that online offerings—while not ideal for everyone—certainly allow students living outside Canada and working full-time to engage in professional master’s education. I enjoy contributing to that effort at SENS. 

OCN: What is your teaching philosophy?

JD: I’m not sure I have a teaching philosophy per se; perhaps “come to class excited about the material to be covered” is my approach. Since my teaching is at the graduate level, my research has helped inform my course content, and my teaching helps me strive to improve the way I communicate research findings to others. 

OCN: You have made many contributions to the field of hydrology. What inspired you to work in this area?

JD: I got into hydrology because I realized I was not quite the outdoorsman I thought I was. I started out in geology at the University of Toronto. In my first undergraduate summer job in the Yukon, I was a geophysics technician in many extremely remote locations. I had many grizzly bear encounters—some where I was up a tree for some time—and I realized I was not cut out for that level of wilderness. I came home to Toronto and changed my major to physical geography, with a concentration in hydrology. It all seemed much safer and no bears—especially my later PhD field site in New Zealand, where the only native mammal was a bat.

OCN: As a hydrologist, what do you want people to know about water security in Canada and internationally?

JD: Perhaps what I would like them to know is that while Canada is blessed with abundant water, climate change is creating significant challenges across the country in terms of increased extremes of flood and drought. My colleague, Dr. John Pomeroy (PhD), recently noted that from Confederation until about 2000, Canada spent about $1 billion in addressing the aftermath of floods and droughts. Since 2000, it has been about $1 billion per year spent on the impacts of floods and droughts—with possibly Canada’s largest insurable disaster in fall 2021 in B.C., with extreme flooding on recently burned land. We’re not immune from global climate change impacts. And, in some ways, with Canada losing its cold, much could change with permafrost thaw and mountain headwaters losing their glacial water sources.

OCN: You conduct research with GIWS, where you serve as associate director. What are some of the research projects you are currently working on?

JD: My role in the Global Institute for Water Security is to help build international research and research relationships between us and other universities. I have graduate students and post-docs currently working in New Zealand, where we are getting at basic processes of where trees take up their water and how this links to the water we see in streams. Similar work is currently underway in China, with colleagues at Tsinghua University and Ludong University. I am sampling the Upper Seine River in France for radioactive isotopes, in an attempt to revisit the first measured water balance in catchment hydrology from 1674.

I have a PhD student finishing her work in Australia in a rainforest in (northeast) Queensland on water uptake processes, and another finishing her PhD in a forest with controlled CO2 additions in watershed in the west midlands of England. Other students I am co-advising are working on vegetation water use in Trinidad and Germany. Closer to home, I am working with a collection of graduate students in B.C. on fire and forest harvesting impacts on streamflow. I’m excited about new work that will start in late 2023 in Spain, where I will do a sabbatical and use that time to learn more about fire impacts on watersheds in and around the Mediterranean and what tools and techniques I can bring back to Canada to address our expanding fire hydrology issue.