SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
13 February 2014
Volume 15 Issue 2

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A Personal Tribute to SETAC Founders Award Winner Sam Luoma

Jim Cloern, U.S. Geological Survey

Visionary leaders are rare and immensely important to the scientific community. SETAC has wisely recognized a spectacularly visionary leader with its selection of Sam Luoma as recipient of its Founders Award. I’ve known Luoma as a colleague and dear friend for nearly four decades, and he continues to inspire me and all around him with his passion, commitment and innovation in the study of metals in the environment. When we first met in the 1970s, Luoma recognized that toxicity of metals in aquatic ecosystems is the result of bioaccumulation through trophic transfers between producers, consumers and predators. His research was guided by the principle that metal effects are determined not only by their concentrations but also by their chemical forms that determine assimilation efficiency by organisms. The management implication was profound—standards for protecting organisms from metal toxicity should be based on efficiency of bioaccumulation in food webs rather than on total concentration in water. This principle was pushed far in the background at the time, but over the next four decades Luoma was relentless in his push that science lead to better understanding of trophic transfers and that regulations to protect organism health be based on metal speciation. Despite earlier (and often vocal) skeptics, these are now mainstream concepts, largely because of Luoma’s innovation and persistence.

Looking back, Luoma’s vision is revealed in 1975, when he launched a monthly sampling program to measure metals in sediments and clams in San Francisco Bay. That remarkable record continues, and it provides compelling evidence of biological recovery of a heavily polluted urban estuary by tracking incremental steps to reduce metal inputs—unassailable proof that remediation can be successful and proof that requires a commitment to sustained measurements over decades. His vision and leadership have had many impacts at the national level. Luoma was one of three U.S. Geological Survey scientists who conceived, designed and implemented its National Water Quality Assessment Program, which begun in an era when the U.S. had no integrated program to assess pollutant levels in the nation’s streams and lakes. There are many examples of Luoma’s commitment to applications of science in policymaking, and we in California still benefit from his legacy as first lead scientist of the CALFED Science Program. Luoma’s leadership and integrity were instrumental in building trust between the scientific community and a broad range of stakeholders. He worked tirelessly to generate wide recognition among those stakeholders that tough policy decisions of resource allocation are best made from a solid foundation of scientific knowledge. His innovation and leadership are appreciated well beyond the U.S. The biodynamic models of metal accumulation developed by Luoma and his colleagues are a synthesis of decades of research that have shaped the contemporary paradigms of his field. And he clearly hasn’t slowed down. I first heard the word “nanotechnology” in a discussion with Luoma a few years ago, when he again revealed his creative mind. At the incipient stage of industrial nanotechnology, he quickly asked, “What are the potential effects of this new technology on metals in the environment?” Soon after, he was fully engaged in an international effort of experimentation, now producing results at the cutting edge of this emerging field.

I once asked Luoma what motivates him, and his answer was simple, “I want to make a difference.” The jury deliberated long ago. The impact of Luoma’s commitment to science and his energy and innovation are beyond the imagination of most of us. I congratulate him on this well-deserved recognition and wonder what he will do in the second half of his career.
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