How to make an ecologist #6

My PhD studies were my introduction to the world of environmental monitoring, the shady netherworld of Jeremiahs who diagnose and pronounce upon the sorry state of our planet.   The roots of this activity lie in sound fundamental research; the form it takes, however, is strongly dictated by non-scientific circumstances, including politics and legislation.

In my case, the research group that Brian Whitton led had done some pioneering work on the effect of heavy metals on aquatic ecology from the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. They had used the abandoned lead mines of the northern Pennines to establish general patterns between the concentration of heavy metal in the water and the number and types of aquatic plants and algae that were found.   The environmental and health consequences of heavy metals was one of the most prominent environmental/health issues of the time. This, however, turned out to be a mixed blessing for me.   On one hand, there was already a huge body of research addressing the basic questions; on the other hand, BP, who at the time had a mining subsidiary exploring the feasibility of zinc mining in the north of England, funded my PhD in order to manage any UK-based activities responsibly.   I was to investigate the use of aquatic mosses to monitor the concentrations of heavy metals, following on from the work of a recently-finished student, John Wehr.

Suffice it to say that I produced enough results over the three years of my studies to satisfy the examiners. It was workmanlike stuff, not terribly exciting and not work that I look back upon with great pride.   I got three papers in respectable journals without shaking the foundations of aquatic ecology and they got my career under way. However, even before I finished, I had the feeling that the rest of the world had moved on.   The issue of toxic pollutants in the environment had been simmering away in the scientific literature and popular press since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in the 1960s.   In 1976, the European Economic Community had passed the Dangerous Substances Directive which limited the amounts of toxic pollutants (including heavy metals) that were allowed to be released into the environment.   By modern standards, it was not a very subtle piece of legislation, and it certainly did not have any ecological nuances that might have stimulated new directions in my research.   What it did mean, however, was that problems posed by heavy metals were on a wane in western Europe by the time I started. There were rivers that still suffered (see “A return to the River Team”) but more due to weak regulation than to a lack of understanding.   Staff in water authorities (forerunners to the Environment Agency) did use mosses to detect intermittent pulses of heavy metals but, as the legislation was written in terms of concentrations of chemicals, the role of biology was secondary.


Caplecleugh Low Level, an abandoned lead mine at Nenthead in the northern Pennines.   This is one of a very small number of slides from the period of my PhD studies, and their aftermath, that has survived.   You can just see the abundant algal growths (Mougeotia) in the channel in the foreground.

One area where heavy metals were still a problem, however, were the abandoned ore fields of the northern Pennines.   The regulators could only regulate extant businesses, but the mining companies who had exploited the minerals here had long since disappeared.   Polluted mine waters continued to pour from abandoned adits into rivers and these created a huge natural laboratory on which to test ideas. I had spent all my life until this point in London; I associated landscapes as majestic as those of the Pennine dales with holidays, not the everyday. Now, however, I had the excuse to get out and explore the hills, looking for suitable locations for experiments or to collect material to work on in the laboratory. I sometimes scheduled field work for the weekends and walk in the hills after I had finished what I needed to do.  The blurring of the boundaries between work and leisure is another recurring, and mostly positive, theme in my career. I know lots of people who need more rigorous compartmentalisation of professional and home life. I’m lucky, perhaps, in that the curiosity that sustains my work can also spill over into something as mundane as a stroll along a river bank.