Full Circle

Full Circle

Giesy (in the red tie) talks to students at the Aquatic Toxicology Research Facility in the Toxicology Centre. Photo by Brian Kachur

By Derrick Kunz

It is a pretty safe bet no one growing up in the 1950s declared “I want to be a toxicologist when I grow up.”

John Giesy, world-renowned toxicologist, professor and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Toxicology in the Department of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences and the Toxicology Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, is no exception.

“My mom would always answer ‘doctor’ for me when others asked, ‘What do you want to do,’” said Giesy. However, his lifelong interest in biology and his father’s influence shaped his career path more than his mother’s not-so-subtle preference. “We needed to hunt and fish for food. I grew up playing in ponds and fishing with my dad. He used it as vehicle to teach, and we had many discussions in the boat.”

The Michigan-native was fast-tracked through primary and secondary school after United States government testing—prompted by the perceived “science gap” when the Russians launched Sputnik into space—identified Giesy had a genius-level IQ.

Giesy earned his undergraduate degree at Alma College, funded by academic and athletic scholarships. He planned on heading to medical school, no doubt making his mother very proud, but a summer spent doing research with the National Science Foundation looking at the effects of local industries on the Flint River prompted a change in direction. “I love the outdoors, so to see the contamination was sickening. You could almost walk across the river it was so polluted.”

Turning down a full medical school scholarship from the University of Michigan, Giesy turned his attention to the environment. “Being an advocate and criticizing wouldn’t help. Presenting data, including to people in the board room, and educating people would help. People generally just don’t know they are polluting. If you present solid data people respond appropriately.”

After considering his many options to study limnology—the study of fresh, inland water— Giesy found himself close to home at Michigan State University for his graduate work. “I wanted to go somewhere exotic, not to the school down the road, but everyone I interviewed said, ‘Why don’t you go to Michigan State? They are the best in the world at what you want to do.’ So I did, and I studied the effects of phosphorous on ecosystems.” Giesy found himself at a crossroads when the Vietnam War broke out and the United States was conscribing military service. “I wanted to be a patriot but not kill anyone.” After weighing his options, which included heading north into Canada or applying for conscientious objector status, Giesy started working at a national defence site. “I studied radio isotopes and the impacts of things like plutonium on the environment. I became the investigator of environmental effects. Whenever the U.S. lost a nuke, which happened, I would be sent to the site to study it,” explained Giesy.

When Australia stopped supplying uranium to the U.S., Giesy headed Down Under and worked with the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, where he branched-out into studying cadmium and other metal contaminants in rivers.

A faculty position at the University of Georgia and a post at a national defence site brought Giesy back to his homeland. After the oil embargo of the early-1970s, the U.S. sought to eliminate its reliance on foreign oil. Giesy’s assignment with the government shifted to study organic contaminants related to oil shale extraction.

Fast forward to an international conference in Hamburg, Germany in 2003. Karsten Liber, director of the U of S Toxicology Centre was seeking a candidate for a tier two Canada Research Chair position. Having known each other for several years, Liber set-up a meeting with Giesy, who was a distinguished professor at MSU. Liber said, “I wanted to talk to John to see who the new up-and-comers for the research chair could be—rising stars in the field of toxicology, especially in the USA. So I offered to buy him a beer to see if we could scoop a great American researcher to come [to the U of S].”

Liber’s impassioned speech conveying the vision to make the U of S Toxicology Centre a global leader piqued Giesy’s curiosity. Liber shared, “John thought what we were doing was fascinating. He said if he was younger he’d want to do this. It was the best five Euros I ever spent.”

Quick thinking, a lot of behind the scenes work with senior U of S administrators and a new proposal to elevate the research chair to a tier one position paved the way for Liber to seal the deal and bring Giesy north.

“There are only a handful of people in any discipline that are household names. John Giesy is one in our field,” Liber said. “We were already known as a top centre in Canada, and recruiting John was transformative. It was a great way for us to quickly become known worldwide.”

Reflecting on his decision to come to the U of S, Giesy sees an almost natural fit between his experience and opportunities in Saskatchewan. “Things have come full circle. I started-out studying phosphorous and effects on phytoplankton, and we do that now in Lake Diefenbaker and around the world. I had a background in radio-ecology, so we apply that now to the uranium industry and our nuclear program the university is starting up. I led a big project on the Columbia River relative to metals and fish, so I used all my metals background there. All the work I did on oil shale, I apply now in the oil sands.” And being a lifetime fan of the Detroit Red Wings, he jibed, “Any place with a statue of Gordie Howe can’t be that bad.”

Adopting the theme of economic empowerment without environmental degradation for his research chair, Giesy made it clear the role of a toxicologist is to encourage responsible progress. “Both natural and synthetic chemicals can have adverse effects on people and wildlife. Our job includes doing assessments looking at both exposure and how hazardous a chemical is.” Working with governments, regulators and industry, toxicologists seek to “answer socially relevant questions” and mitigate risks to people and the environment.

Determining and limiting risk isn’t the end, though. A self-described “green chemist,” Giesy works to replace harmful chemicals, not just limit exposure or remove them. A grant from 3M led to the creation of a new chemical to replace toxic perfluorocarbons, a substance that was used in Scotchgard, microwave popcorn bags, microchips and many other household items.

Since coming to the U of S, Giesy has been impressed with level of commitment the university has demonstrated. “Everything promised has been delivered. I like the frontier mentality here. We have to do it together and be self-sufficient, and that affects how we work together.”

The results of that work are paying off for the centre. “We had the goal of building the best centre in the world, and we have,” said Giesy. “No one in North America comes close. We dominate international meetings, presenting more papers than any university in each of the last six years.”

External reviews back-up Giesy’s claim. A review panel in late 2012 noted “the program and the Toxicology Centre easily rank within the top five toxicology programs at the international level” and that its graduates are “world-class toxicologists (…) who are sought after by potential employers.”

A world-class reputation is because of, and enhances, international partnerships. Liber explained, “We started with partnerships in Europe because, at the time, they were well ahead of us in terms of legislation and international student exchange programs. Many of us also had personal and professional connections in Europe, so that provided good opportunities for our students.” Being a university, providing opportunities for students to learn new techniques and build their own network of professional contacts is of utmost importance.

China has become arguably the centre’s most important international partner. Although the country doesn’t have the best reputation on environmental issues, Giesy points out the obvious—we can’t ignore what’s happening in one of the largest, most populated economies in the world because “pollution doesn’t respect borders; it spills into other parts of the world, including the Arctic.”

Liber added, “The air there is often horrible; in places you can feel the acid in your throat.” At the same time, there’s a real opportunity for U of S experts to help them help themselves, and it enhances the “international profile for the university and the centre.”

Highlighting the importance of relations with China, many U of S faculty hold positions at Chinese universities, including both Liber, with one appointment, and Giesy with four. Giesy was also named an Einstein Professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the highest honour a non- Chinese scientist can be given. “We are able to recruit some of their best and brightest students and provide exchange opportunities for our students and faculty,” said Liber.

With a curriculum vitae long enough to burn-out a household printer and enough awards and accolades to fill a trophy room—including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Parisbased Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment and a Founders Award from the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry—Giesy says he’s most proud of being named a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. “[My wife and I] adopted Canada and they’ve adopted us. I was elected my first year of eligibility on the first ballot. That’s pretty cool.”

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The business of toxicology

Canada Ecotoxicity Testing & Screening (CETES) endocrine disruptor screening and assessment

U of S toxicologists John Giesy, Markus Hecker and Xiaowei Zhang have developed a screening test in response to growing concern contaminants, particularly in water, may inhibit normal function of the human endocrine system—the system that produces hormones related to metabolism, growth and reproduction to name just a few.

Karsten Liber, director of the centre, explained that contrary to what is seen on television, each class of contaminant must be tested separately—which is costly, time consuming and does not guarantee “results of concern.”

CETES is a live cell line that identifies chemicals affecting the estrogen, androgen and thyroid hormone systems by exposing cells to samples (extracts) and monitoring reactions that may indicate the need for further testing. Both private industry and government agencies, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency, are using the innovation.

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The Toxicology Centre: a brief history


The Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) builds a facility for research in water supply, mineral resources, agriculture, secondary industry and transportation.


A Toxicology Centre was first proposed to the National Research Council. Funding was denied.


An agreement between the U of S and the provincial government is reached to establish the centre.


The Toxicology Centre is formed. Plans to construct a $6.5-million facility were curtailed due to lack of funding.


SRC moves to Innovation Place and sells the building to the U of S for $1. Federal funding of $2 million is approved for renovations.

December 8, 1986.

The Toxicology Research Centre (TRC) moves to its current home.


The TRC, the Toxicology Group, and the Toxicology Graduate Program are amalgamated into the Toxicology Centre.


An $11.8-million expansion sees the addition of new research laboratories and the Aquatic Toxicology Research Facility, the only facility of its type in Canada and one of only a few in the world.

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