A bedroom menagerie becomes life-long dedication to Canadian conservation

Queen's University, Stephen Lougheed, conservation, biology, environment, sustainability, ecology, endangered species, Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre

Dr. Stephen Lougheed teaches at the Queen’s University Biological Station. (Photo credit: Evelyn Lougheed).

Through its annual National Awards, Partners in Research recognizes researchers who mobilize their groundbreaking and innovative findings through educational outreach, illustrating the impact of research on the lives of Canadians. Research Matters will profile three Ontario award recipients leading up to the PIR National Awards ceremony on May 9 in Ottawa.

The following is a Q&A with Science Ambassador award recipient, Dr. Stephen Lougheed, a professor at Queen’s University, Department of Biology.

Why did you choose to study biology? 

My interest in biology was inspired largely by my mother and maternal grandmother, both of whom were passionate amateur naturalists. My mother was incredibly tolerant of my desire to have a menagerie in my bedroom when I was in my teens—I had cages and aquaria filled with birds, snakes, toads, turtles, and terrestrial crabs.

When I was perhaps 11 or 12 years old my paternal grandfather gifted me Alan Moorehead’s illustrated book Darwin and the Beagle, which I devoured. It sparked within me a desire to travel and witness biodiversity firsthand. I even tried soon thereafter to read a Penguin facsimile first edition of On the Origin of Species—although I don’t think I managed to get through it. My father was a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Guelph and I sometimes spent long hours with him as he did his large-scale experiments (he was a post-harvest physiologist who varied environmental conditions in storage of fruits and vegetables to better sustain their taste, texture, and nutritional value). His dedication, work ethic, and patience were also motivating forces in my career choice.

What led you to Canadian conservation?

I’ve always been aware of, and deeply affected by, iconic examples of species that were driven to extinction by the hand of humans, perhaps because of my family environment and my own reading of nature magazines and books. I was a pretty intense birdwatcher in my teens and early 20s, and became keenly aware of many bird species whose numbers were declining in Canada, particularly those of the Carolinean forests in southwestern Ontario. My awareness of these quite dire conservation issues gradually expanded to include other Canadian species (snakes, frogs, lizards, mammals, flowering plants). I did my undergrad in molecular biology and genetics at Guelph, but decided soon thereafter to marry my passion for nature and the outdoors with my interest in genetics. As my graduate and professional careers unfolded, my students, collaborators, and I increasingly chose projects that combined intensive fieldwork, ecology, and genetics/genomics to try to quantify the impact of human activities on Canadian species, and to help prioritize and guide conservation efforts of remaining populations of endangered and threatened species. My work at the Queen’s University Biological Station also introduced me to the good work of land conservancies, and provincial and national parks, and the need for us to partner with them to help conserve biodiversity for future generations.

How did you get into your current research on the genetic structure of animal populations?

Pretentious as it might sound, it really goes back to reading about the works and lives of the famous Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, and of some of Darwin’s contemporaries like Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Walter Bates, and Richard Spruce. All of them were driven to document and understand diversity in the natural world. Wallace was a particular inspiration for me. He is often considered to be a founder of the field of bio-geography and there are some wonderful research questions that can be found in his writings, particularly his 1878 book, The Geographical Distribution of Animals. For example, how do large rivers like the Amazon shape species distributions and origins? How might the waxing and waning of glaciers impact the evolution of new species? How do islands facilitate adaptive evolution and speciation? Of course, now we can delve into questions about species origins and diversification using incredible genomic and geomatics tools, but the root questions often are still the same.

What caused you to create the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre?

I realized long ago how influential exposure to nature and science was for me in my formative years and wanted to act on this. I am a father of two children and have seen first-hand how exposure to science, nature, and for that matter art, culture, and politics, has influenced my son’s and daughter’s worldviews. There is also increasing evidence that children are becoming disengaged from the outdoors and natural world with consequences both for mental and physical health. We have an obligation and moral responsibility to counter this. The Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre was created in 2011 for these very reasons, and we work hard to present outdoor and science opportunities for young people throughout the year.

Why is it important to engage the public in science research?

I do not think it is a coincidence that among the happiest and healthiest countries are the ones that have the most robust and freest academic institutions. University research is largely publicly funded and thus I feel we are morally obliged to talk about what we do, and why both fundamental and applied research is important to the well-being and growth of any society. Given the spread of anti-science rhetoric, it is increasingly important to have the public understand what we do, what it means, and how science underpins our ability to compete and supports our society. The world has never been more globalized, industrialized, automated, and interconnected. This brings a range of opportunities, but also myriad problems not least of which are climate change, global pollution, human-driven mass extinction, drug-resistant bacteria, and emergent diseases with the real possibility of pandemics. These represent massive challenges that will require informed policy changes supported by the public and underpinned by sound science.

What role can research play in Ontario’s future?

Ontario has a wonderful network of universities and colleges that engages in virtually every domain of inquiry relevant to our collective future: our environmental, economic, social, and cultural well-being, and the health of our citizens. In diverse disciplines spanning environmental sciences and ecology, through to medical science and epidemiology, to engineering, robotics and AI, and beyond, one can point to an Ontario researcher who is an acknowledged leader in the field, or a department or institution that is clearly a centre of innovation. There are incredible opportunities for collaboration, shared expertise, and networks, and certainly my own research involves many researchers from across Ontario and Canada.

What excites you about the future of research in Ontario?

When I did my undergrad degree, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) had just been invented and had not been incorporated into the curriculum let alone widely adopted by molecular researchers. It was almost impossible to convince university administrations that personal computers were useful for anything beyond simple games, and we used topographic maps and compasses to understand and map the physical and biological world. We are now in the throes of the Big Data revolution where an undergrad can have a Next Generation Sequencing data set of 400 million DNA sequences to analyze for their thesis; we can understand the processes that shape the natural, physical, and human worlds by manipulating millions of spatial data using Geographic Information Systems; and we have access to incredible computing power beyond the imagination of my younger self.

Ontario researchers are at the forefronts of these various scientific advances, and our ability to understand such things as the causes of and treatments for human disease, the origins and genetic basis of species, the best way forward in green energy, or the impacts of climate change on sea level and polar regions will be unparalleled.

Tagged: Environment & Sustainability, Natural Resources

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