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Cairns' retirement recognized

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 25 - March 28, 1996

By Sally Harris

He has published well above 1,000 journal articles, books, book chapters, and other professional writings.

He is recognized in the Blacksburg community as the man who dictates papers while hiking and in Derring Hall as the non-stop researcher who doesn't quit even after retiring.

His inventive mind is at work even when unpacking boxes-and he saw in the packaging materials the potential for a stream-monitoring system that he later invented and that is used around the world.

He is known and consulted worldwide about environmental issues.

He is John Cairns, university distinguished professor of environmental biology emeritus and former director of the University Center for Environmental and Hazardous Materials Studies. He is a legend.

The biology department sponsored a retirement event in Cairns's honor March 21 featuring a talk on "The Energetics of Ecosystems Management" by Eugene Odum, eminent emeritus professor and director of the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia.

Although Cairns' career has been illustrious, his early professional activities were not without risk. While gathering data on the Amazon, he was stricken with appendicitis in Tarapota, Peru, and flown by a former Luftwaffe pilot to Ekitos, Peru, for the necessary operation. In the middle of the Brazilian Amazon jungle, he contracted a fever much like typhoid.

"Mostly," Cairns said, "being on a 14-person river-survey crew that traveled extensively in North America and other parts of the world was hard work, but generally uneventful." He was field crew chief for 17 years. "Nevertheless, there came a time when I could not take life on a field crew-working in all kinds of weather and often in very uncomfortable situations."

When Cairns left the field crew in 1966, the only person left was his mentor, Ruth Patrick. It was a time when there were virtually no women in science. "Many people felt that women could not be trusted to handle money," he said. "However, Ruth Patrick was not only a superb scientist, but a shrewd businesswoman as well."

He credits his success in acquiring extramural funding to his apprenticeship with Patrick. That experience also probably had something to do with one of his latest honors: being one of the first men to be elected a fellow of the Association for Women in Science "for having demonstrated exemplary commitment to the achievement of equity for women in science and technology."

Cairns came to Virginia Tech in 1968. During his career at Tech, he has done research aimed at improving the quality of information used in making environmental decisions, and his research forms the basis on which much subsequent work has been done in several fields. He has been a pioneer in or made major contributions to several critical areas, including community ecology and recovery and restoration of damaged ecosystems.

His career has earned him numerous honors. According to Joe Cowles, biology department head, Cairns is the only member of the Virginia Tech faculty to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences while employed at Tech. The academy admits 60 or fewer members annually from all science disciplines.

Cairns has won too many awards to mention them all, but they include being named a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was named a foreign member of the Linnean Society of London.

He received the Life Achievement Award in Science from the Commonwealth of Virginia, the U.S. Presidential Commendation for Environmental Activities, and the United Nations Environmental Programme Medal. He also earned the Superior Achievement Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the American Fisheries Society Award of Excellence, and the B.Y. Morrison Medal from the Pacific Rim Conference of the American Chemical Society.

His publication record now totals 1,243 publications, including 54 books, 28 bulletins, 252 chapters in books edited by colleagues, 509 journal articles, 299 abstracts, and 101 editorials. The most recent of his books are Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems, Environmental Literacy and Beyond, Implementing Integrated Environmental Management, Ecological Toxicity Testing: Scale Complexity and Relevance, Rehabilitating Damaged Ecosystems (Second Edition), and Handbook of Ecotoxicology.

In his first partial-retirement year, Cairns published five books and, with a group of colleagues, produced a three-volume encyclopedia of environmental biology through Academic Press. During his "retirement" span, he also published 22 chapters in books edited by colleagues, 16 journal articles, and four editorials.

Cairns is noted and consulted internationally for his work with the environment and has served on numerous committees, including 18 of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. He currently serves on 14 editorial boards and has served on the Science Advisory Board of the International Joint Commission and on the USEPA Science Advisory Board.

Cairns has typically taught one graduate seminar and one honors course each of the years he has been at Tech. Until retirement, he also has taught one course each year at either the University of Michigan Biological Station or the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

However, he says, "I feel that working with students on research projects is the best form of teaching because of the close problem-solving relationship."

Most of his 72 graduate students have earned their degrees at Virginia Tech. He enjoys most publishing the results of this research with his students and, on most of these journal articles and abstracts, they are senior authors.

"One can relive the thrill of one's first publication over and over again while working with students," Cairns said. The honors students doing independent research under his supervision have delivered papers before graduation at local, regional, and national meetings, as have the graduate students.

All of this costs money, according to department head Cowles, "and Cairns pays research costs for the graduate students plus publication charges and travel to professional meetings." Cairns has had at least four grants each year for every year of his entire career, and presently has four active grants totaling over $500,000. A proposal for over $200,000 is now in review. Cairns is still chairing two Ph.D. committees and supervising four undergraduate research projects.