SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
12 April 2018
Volume 19 Issue 4

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In Memoriam: John Cairns Jr. (1923–2017)

Ken Dickson and Tom Waller, University of North Texas; Richard Sparks, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Guy Lanza, State University of New York

John Cairns Jr. Professor John Cairns Jr. passed peacefully at home on 5 November 2017 in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA, not far from his beloved Virginia Tech. Dr. Cairns will be remembered as a husband, father and grandfather, distinguished professor and academic mentor, ecological pioneer, prolific author, champion of social consciousness and sustainability, flyfishing enthusiast, avid hiker, experienced folk dancer and proud United States Navy veteran of World War II.

Dr. Cairns received his Ph.D. and M.S. from the University of Pennsylvania. He was Curator of Limnology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia for 18 years until 1966 and professor of zoology at the University of Kansas for a short time before joining the faculty of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in 1968.

His enthusiasm for science writing, teaching and research was boundless. He wrote 1,750 publications and 65 books. He taught 20 university courses on protozoology, limnology, ecotoxicology, restoration ecology, ethics in science, hazard evaluation and ecosystem risk analysis. He chaired or cochaired more than 70 graduate committees and spent every summer teaching at either the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory or the University of Michigan Biological Station. Dr. Cairns retired from Virginia Tech in 1995 as Director of the University Center for Environmental and Hazardous Materials Studies.

His assistant, Darla Donald, chronicles the many national and international honors and outstanding contributions reflecting Dr. Cairns’ considerable influence on U.S. environmental policy and ecological research around the world. Among the many honors, he served on 18 U.S. National Research Council committees (two as chair) and 14 science editorial boards. In 1991, he was named to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and received the Virginia Lifetime Achievement in Science Award. He served on the Science Advisory Boards of the International Joint Commission (United States and Canada) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and was elected a foreign member of the Linnean Society of London. He was recipient of the U.S. Presidential Commendation for Environmental Activities, the Superior Achievement Award from USEPA and the Distinguished Science Award from the American Institute of Biological Sciences. He was recognized as a Fellow with the Ecological Society of America. He received the SETAC Founders Award in 1981 and was named a SETAC Emeritus Member for his sustained and distinguished contributions to the society.

Dr. Cairns lived a full life dedicated to the science of solving environmental problems. Here we share memories of our time as the first students he mentored so long ago.

Ken Dickson

I met Dr. Cairns for the first time in the spring of 1968 as a master’s student in the biology department at the University of North Texas. Inspired by his enthusiasm and depth of knowledge, I was excited by the invitation to join his Ph.D. graduate program at the University of Kansas (KU) in the fall, beginning with three months of summer research at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station. It was at the Biological Station that I realized Dr. Cairns was a truly exceptional person. He took me under his wing and taught me how to fly fish (he loved trout fishing), how to identify and count protozoa, how to use artificial substrates, how to analyze data, how to write grant proposals and how to write research publications.

In the fall, I took my young family not to KU but instead to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. When I arrived, I found the new Biology Building at Virginia Tech was not ready for Dr. Cairns’ program. Undeterred, Dr. Cairns and five graduate students, myself included, convened our first day of class in one big room in the Forestry Building. We had no laboratories, equipment or resources other than student stipends and Dr. Cairns’ confidence and vision. During that first day of class, Dr. Cairns and his team framed the fledgling research program and committed to writing grant proposals. By the spring of 1969, we had several funded research proposals. Dr. Cairns taught us to manage the grants, work with sponsors, write research reports and publish the results. The program and his students were never in doubt. Dr. Cairns jump-started my career and the careers of many more students to follow at Virginia Tech. He was a fabulous mentor. He unselfishly shared his contacts and referred research opportunities to his students. I miss him and will be forever grateful for his support and guidance.

Tom Waller

My first introduction to Dr. Cairns was through his published research while working on my master’s degree at Pittsburg State University. Several correspondences led to an invitation to visit KU and soon thereafter to a research position at the university. My work at KU involved remotely measuring the movement patterns of fish before, during and after exposure to certain toxicants. Dr. Cairns theorized that if the fish changed their movement patterns when exposed to toxicants, then we might be able to monitor that behavior as an early warning system for the presence of toxic surface-water conditions.

During my second semester at KU, Dr. Cairns announced his decision to join the faculty at Virginia Tech. That same evening at home with my wife, we opened our Rand McNally road atlas and searched for Blacksburg. That summer of 1968, we packed our few belongings and young son into a Volkswagen bug and drove to Virginia. Together with new colleagues and now lifelong friends—Ken, Richard and Guy—I spent my first year in one big room writing grant proposals. One of the funded proposals was work I had started at KU; all we needed was laboratory space to carry out the research. During my second year, Dr. Cairns taught me how to build a functioning research laboratory. For many years thereafter, a lot of good ecotoxicological science was reported in that research laboratory, born from the many opportunities that Dr. Cairns offered to me. I earned a Ph.D. and gained lifelong friendships with my fellow graduates of that first Ph.D. program at Virginia Tech.

Richard (Rip) Sparks

My first introduction to Dr. Cairns was his limnology course at KU. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Cairns agreed to be the instructor in charge of my MS program at KU and later invited me to join him at Virginia Tech as a Ph.D. candidate in 1968.

That first year together in one big room in the Forestry Building at Virginia Tech with Dr. Cairns was just as Ken and Tom described. It was memorable. We studied a range of environmental topics and postulated solutions to unanswered questions. By the second year and with research funding secured, we turned much of that single big room into a wet laboratory. We rarely left that room. When Dr. Cairns or research sponsors asked for progress reports, we could look up from our desks at the fish in their test aquaria and respond with observations instantly. Dr. Cairns’ desk was in that room, too. I recall clearly the evolution of Dr. Cairns’ early ideas on chemical interactions with aquatic life and ecosystems, and his many conversations on these topics with potential research sponsors in U.S. federal agencies, research organizations and private companies. We couldn’t avoid it— there was no way not to hear Dr. Cairns’ end of some of the telephone conversations with sponsors!

Dr. Cairns was an inspiring mentor who led by example. I have tried to model my own relationships with students after Dr. Cairns’ generosity and collegiality toward us. He believed that understanding and solving environmental problems required the collaboration of a team of technical disciplines. Dr. Cairns strongly urged his students to take at least introductory-level courses in civil engineering, chemistry and economics, and to gain as much varied experience as possible, including helping with each other’s graduate projects. I’ve been able to talk to engineers, planners and economists ever since; it has made a huge difference in a career dedicated to environmental policy.

Guy Lanza

I joined Dr. Cairns and his research laboratory group—Ken, Tom, Rip and Jean Ruthven—at Virginia Tech in 1969, a year after the program was founded in one room of the Forestry Building. After several years working on antiparasitic drug development at a research institute, I was concerned that my background and experience was quite a bit different than those of the other students and somewhat removed from the basic aquatic ecology background that brought the group together. What mattered to Dr. Cairns, however, was a good work ethic and a desire to make a contribution to environmental protection and conservation. He was a truly great mentor and friend who guided, but did not dictate, the research conducted by his students at Virginia Tech. He balanced technical guidance with encouragement and a freedom of thought that fostered research creativity.

The wallpaper on my iPhone is a photograph of the red fluorescent diatoms I used in my Ph.D. research under Dr. Cairns’ supervision. It’s a very special reminder for me of those heady days of the 1970s that marked the beginning of the U.S. environmental movement: A time when a very special man encouraged his students to learn and contribute to the emergence of ecological science, and he showed us by example how research and science could make a difference in life.

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