The Research Station’s former director and current senior scientist Dan Engstrom received Minnesota’s most distinguished award for protecting clean water last week. At the annual Minnesota Water Resources Conference, Engstrom was given the Dave Ford Award with co-winner and colleague Kent Johnson of the Metropolitan Council.
The award is bestowed by the conference’s planning committee to recognize individuals whose lifetime accomplishments have contributed to improving Minnesota's water quality.
In his career spanning more than 40 years, Engstrom has focused on three key topics: mercury contamination of fish, the sources and effects of nutrients and sediment reaching Minnesota’s lakes and rivers, and the natural evolution of lakes that formed from the melting of glaciers.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Rebecca Flood also noted Engstrom’s efforts in the 1970s to help protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park as she presented the award.
“Dan Engstrom has improved the lives of Minnesotans not only through his scientific research but also through his advocacy for wilderness areas,” Flood said. “Dan’s clever use of lake-sediment analysis has directly impacted resource-management policies by quantifying the degree to which we’ve polluted the environment, relative to its natural state prior to the settlement of Minnesota by European-Americans.”
Engstrom received his bachelor’s degree in 1971 and master’s in 1975 in zoology from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and he earned his PhD in ecology in 1983 from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities under Dr. Herb Wright. He joined the Research Station staff in 1995 and served as director from 1999 until July 2017.
An innovative and influential scientist, Engstrom has published more than 150 peer-reviewed papers, which have been cited more than 11,000 times by other scientists, and have significantly affected water management and policy decisions. His mercury research was fundamental to the plan that Minnesota adopted in 2007 to reduce mercury contamination of fish, with policies based on multiple studies he helped design, carry out, and publish.
“I’ve had the unique opportunity to build my own research institution, to hire and become close friends with some of the most creative scientists anywhere, to work on some of the most fascinating and important problems facing water resources in our times. That is truly a gift,“ Engstrom said in accepting the award. “And I doubt I could have done it anywhere else in this country. To have a parent institution, the Science Museum of Minnesota, provide the framework and the freedom to take things where I wanted them to go. To work in a state that places high value on the environment and especially on water, and creatively funds efforts aimed at its restoration and protection. And to collaborate with the many dedicated and talented scientists in our state agencies, colleges and University. That has made everything possible.”
Dr. Ed Swain of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was one of the nominators for the award. He wrote of Engstrom’s important work with a broad spectrum of partners, including University of Minnesota students whom he has advised and mentored as an adjunct professor in both Earth Sciences and Water Resources Science at the university.
“Dan’s collaborators, whether they are beginning graduate students or experienced water professionals, are inspired to work extra hard on a project when they encounter Dan’s enthusiasm to go out in the field and obtain data to address a particular question,” Swain wrote.
Another of Engstrom’s passions has been studying landscapes revealed by recently-receded glaciers in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park.
“This work followed in the footsteps of the Minnesota ecological luminaries William Cooper and Don Lawrence and resulted in a cover story in the prestiguous journal Nature,” said Jim Almendinger, another nominator and recently-appointed director of the station. “This article refuted the dogma that lakes always become more eutrophic over time by demonstrating that the opposite was in fact true, at least in high-rainfall boreal regions.”
Engstrom closed his remarks by saying he was honored by the award, but his work is not yet done, as there are many lakes and questions he hasn’t been able to study yet.
“I haven’t cored all the lakes in Minnesota yet, only a few hundred,” he said. “And there are still waters to be sampled and scientific problems that continue to fascinate me.”
The Dave Ford Award honors the longtime Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Water Division engineer who passed away in 2003. Ford is remembered for his excellent theoretical understanding and practical knowledge to effectively use models to address a variety of water resource management issues. He was first and foremost a teacher, a mentor, a cooperator and a friend to many in the water resources community.