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Professor recognized for influential algae research

Monday, February 18, 2013

Val Smith

LAWRENCE – Blue-green algae aren’t regularly on the minds of the masses. However, that changes quickly when toxic and unsightly blue-green algal blooms crop up in a local lake or reservoir, putting a damper on summertime fun.

When researchers approach the problem of blue-green algae, their work is frequently influenced by the findings of Val Smith, a University of Kansas professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Nearly 30 years ago, Smith wrote a paper on the influence of nitrogen and phosphorus ratios on the proliferation of blue-green algae. He found that these highly undesirable algae were rare in lakes that had a high ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus.

The Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) has recognized Val Smith’s paper as one of the most influential in the field of aquatic science during the 20th century, and Smith has just been named the 2013 recipient of ASLO’s John Martin Award. Established in 2005, this award recognizes a past paper in aquatic sciences that is judged to have had a high impact on subsequent research in the field.

Since it was originally published in 1983, Smith’s paper has been cited more than 800 times, making it one of the most influential publications in the area of eutrophication, which is the study of ecosystems’ response to excess nutrients. This paper’s demonstration that low nitrogen to phosphorus ratios promote the growth of nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, in lakes, spurred policies to limit the amount of phosphorus released by humans into fresh waters.

In his summary of Smith’s contributions, David Schindler, nominator and distinguished professor at University of Alberta, says that this paper set the stage for using phosphorus management to reduce eutrophication.

“The control of a single element, phosphorus, has improved the water quality of many of the world’s most important lakes, but has saved billions of dollars over the multiple nutrient control strategies that have otherwise been suggested,” Schindler said. “Clearly, it is one of the most important papers in aquatic sciences in the 20th century.”

This award will be presented at the annual ASLO 2013 Aquatic Sciences Meeting, which will take place Feb. 17-22 in New Orleans. ASLO is an international society that was founded in 1956. For more than 50 years, ASLO has been the world’s leading professional organization for researchers and educators in the field of aquatic science.

Smith has been at KU since 1993. After receiving his bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and in biology from the University of Kansas in 1973, Smith obtained a master’s degree in ecology from Rutgers University, and a doctorate in ecology from the University of Minnesota. His primary expertise is in the ecology and physiology of algae. His current research is focused on efforts to develop algal biofuels as part of KU’s multidisciplinary Feedstock to Tailpipe Initiative, which is overseen and supported by KU’s Transportation Research Institute.

The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology is part of KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which encourages learning without boundaries in its more than 50 departments, programs and centers. Through innovative research and teaching, the College emphasizes interdisciplinary education, global awareness and experiential learning. It is the broadest and most diverse academic unit at the University of Kansas.