Canada Research Chair in Environmental Toxicology
Like many boys playing in the ponds in and around his native Flint, Michigan, John Giesy was fascinated by fish, frogs, insects, and other denizens of the aquatic environment.
Giesy never lost his fascination for the life aquatic. While his early interest in biology steered him toward a career in medicine, one of his professors suggested he might better help society through research in environmental toxicology. It was 1970 – the year of the first Earth Day – appropriate timing to launch a career that has seen Giesy become one of the world’s foremost experts in persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and “green chemistry.”
Giesy’s efforts as an undergraduate at Michigan’s Alma College earned him recognition as Woodrow Wilson and National Science Foundation Fellows. After looking into many graduate programs, he chose the school in his own backyard: Michigan State University, which boasts one of the best environmental toxicology programs in the world.
Over the next 32 years Giesy, a self-described “lab rat,” would combine proficiency in mathematics and chemistry with biology to build a research program that tightly meshes the sometimes disparate fields, first at the University of Georgia then back at his alma mater for the next 26 years. The approach has been a key to his success in “green chemistry” – that is, first identifying harmful man-made pollutants in the environment, then designing alternatives.
As an outdoorsman, Giesy cherishes nature. At the same time, he appreciates the comforts of modern technological society. This is an overriding theme of his chair in environmental toxicology: economic empowerment without environmental degradation.
“How can we do things and maintain the benefits but not have adverse environmental effects?” he says.
Combining biology and chemistry has been a demanding path, but one that has borne rich fruit both in terms of discovery and accolades. In 1994 at the age of 42, Giesy became the youngest recipient and only American to win Environment Canada’s prestigious Vollenweider Medal. The next year he was elected president of the global academic Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) and at age 47 received the Founder’s Award, its highest honor for scientific excellence in environmental sciences.
Giesy’s innovation has made him the first to describe many phenomena. He is a pioneer in developing many fields, including assessment of endocrine disruptors, assessment of sediment toxicity, multi-species toxicity testing, and ecological risk assessment. His team was the first to identify the presence in the environment of perfluorinated compounds, a class of POPs widely used in common products such as paints, cosmetics, and electronics. Giesy and his colleagues found them in animal tissues from all over the world – from Ganges River dolphins to North American bald eagles.
Another of his “firsts” is the discovery that some POPs become more toxic when exposed to light. A world expert in the environmental fates and effects of chlorinated compounds such as dioxins and PCBs, Giesy and his team were the first to determine the causes of embryo-lethality and deformities in birds of the Great Lakes.
Giesy is working to develop rapid, sensitive, and cost-effective tools to test for POPs in the environment, particularly in regions such as Canada’s Arctic where fragile ecosystems and a heavy reliance on native foods make populations especially vulnerable.
He has also forged strong links with China, whose aspirations for development could have profound impact on the world’s environment. There, as a chair professor in Hong Kong and Nanjing, he works with Chinese scientists to understand harmful impacts of human activity on the environment, and to develop ways to lessen this damage, while fostering cross-cultural communication and economic empowerment.
Special thanks to Heather Fenton, a third-year veterinary student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, in arranging the appearance of Jasmine for this profile. The Swainson’s hawk is the resident education bird for WCVM’s Wild and Exotic Animal Medicine Society.