Ross Smith, SETAC World Council President

Let me take this opportunity to introduce myself. My name is Ross Smith, I am an Australian, and I work generally in the tropics but globally as an environmental consultant in a company I co-founded. I’ve been a member of SETAC since 1989, but I will come back to how that happened. I am also a member of a number of other scientific societies, some general, like the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and some very specific, like the Oceania Chondrichthyan Society. SETAC is the society with which I am most active and have been for some time.

It is worth reflecting that my membership in multiple scientific societies might mark me for my age bracket, but it actually is due to my specific history of working as a scientist. Let me tell you the story of how I came to be a SETAC member to explain what I mean.

Why SETAC?

In 1987, just as I was handing my Ph.D. thesis to the printer at my university in North Queensland (no PDFs in those days, but I was at the vanguard of using a word processor rather than a typewriter to do my thesis) I was told there was a phone call for me back in my laboratory (no mobile phones either, of course). That call led to me being offered a job at a copper-gold mine in Papua New Guinea.

Today, this is an exotic country to visit for most people, but 30 years ago it was very much still a frontier for science. As an example, we regularly caught specimens of a catfish that reached nearly three meters in length but had no formal description. Working there was an amazing opportunity, but the mining company wanted me to investigate the toxicity of their wastes to the fish of the Fly River system. I was an ecologist, so this whole field of ecotoxicology was new to me.  I needed to read up on the literature; however, doing that from a small town in the foothills of the Star Mountains on the border of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia was no easy task. I had to send letters (remember them?) to scientists requesting a reprint of their papers – there was no scientific library anywhere near me.  Those reprints took up to a year and a half to reach me, but they were my lifeline. Many of the authors I corresponded with were SETAC members, and eventually I was given a notice of a SETAC meeting to be held in Toronto. Amazingly I was supported by the company to attend.

My journey to Toronto started in a dugout canoe on the lower Fly River, followed by a three-hour helicopter ride to the international airport in Tabubil, a quick side trip to the local doctor because I had managed to contract conjunctivitis on the lower Fly, then flights to Cairns in Australia, then Honolulu, Vancouver and, finally, Toronto. After over 40 hours of travel, I arrived in Toronto early in the morning, the day before the conference started. I was sporting very sore eyes and was very much in need of a shower, only to be told I would have to wait six hours for a room in my hotel to be ready. I settled into a chair in the lobby and promptly fell asleep. Sometime later, I was woken by a tap on the shoulder by a concierge to find an otherwise vacant space around me in the hotel lobby. Apparently, the spectacle of a wild young scientist from the distant rainforest, snoring loudly and in need of personal grooming, was not warmly greeted by the other guests in that lobby. The hotel wisely offered me early check-in.

After that dubious start, the conference turned out to be fabulous. I learned a lot, put some faces to the names of my correspondents, and came to realize that I really did prefer the tropics to the wintery blasts of Toronto – apologies to my Canadian friends and colleagues. I am simply not adapted to Toronto in November.

SETAC has been an important part of my life ever since. It continues to provide me with a network that keeps me up-to-date. I have remained in industry since that phone call at the printer. Finding time to read the literature is a luxury I often don’t have when my employees or clients are demanding an answer – now. My established network provides me with a valuable shortcut. Critically, it is a global network, and that has been crucial for me. I am drafting this on a flight between Brazil and Chile, having spent three weeks investigating the impacts of a tailings spill. My global network has helped me to work globally. But, let me focus on the local first.

When I joined SETAC, I lived in a remote area in a developing country. In those days, SETAC was based in North America. It still provided me with a professional lifeline. Later, I was the president of a sister society in Australia when the members voted to become a chapter of SETAC. What is unique about SETAC? Of all the societies of which I am a member, SETAC most benefits by its layered structure. While I agree the tripartite structure is also important, in this article I want to talk about the geographic layers of SETAC. The chapter I helped to merge with SETAC remains a very vibrant organization that is relevant to its regional membership, who are extremely loyal to it. It provides an important forum for sharing developments that are critical to environmental management in Australasia, and it has had a strong influence on the development of the Australian and New Zealand water and sediment quality standards. Many members only interact with SETAC at this regional level and find that very enriching.

SETAC Australasia is a chapter within SETAC Asia-Pacific. That Geographic Unit (GU) is unique among the five SETAC GUs. It includes a number of very advanced economies, like Japan, South Korea and Singapore, a large number of developing countries, such as Bangaladesh, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam and Fiji, and the economic and population powerhouses of China and India. Such diversity of needs can be overwhelming for the Board of Directors to deal with, but the membership and activities within the GU provide crucial links and very useful opportunities. Examples include basic training workshops in Ambon, Indonesia, the ICEPORM conference series in Vietnam, the Biennial GU conference in Daegu, Korea, Focused Topic Conference Series in Canberra, Australia, and even a planned Pellston Workshop® in Seoul, South Korea. The GU provides an important role in progressing Environmental Quality through Science® in the region.

I am now the SETAC World Council president. Global SETAC provides the overarching glue for the GUs, and the high-level, global workshops and Pellston workshops that drive advancement of our science. It also supports the activities of the GU’s, particularly the three smaller membership ones of Latin America, Africa and Asia-Pacific, as well as the regional chapters and branches within them, and provides the linkage between those local, regional and global environmental science needs. I am honored to be able to help to facilitate that.

The widespread trend in scientific societies worldwide is for declining membership numbers, but conferences are more popular than ever, and international travel more accessible than it has ever been. How scientists network has changed over time, and joining a professional body is not the automatic choice for an early career researcher as it was when I was one. But networking is still best done face-to-face. We share our knowledge most efficiently by talking to each other, often over a drink of some sort it seems. The literature is important, but the germs of the ideas that lead to breakthroughs stem from personal interactions between scientists. The casual comment from a colleague, or the unanswered question in a poster or platform, that is what gets us thinking. Scientific societies still have a critical role to play in that, and it is why scientific conferences are, if anything, gaining in popularity. As a society, SETAC strives for Environmental Quality Through Science.® We make progress on that by interacting with each other. From the only ecotoxicologist in an island nation to the acknowledged subject leader with in an aspect of environmental chemistry and toxicology at a tier-one university, we need to support each other.  That is how we all achieve our universal goal.

So, I ask you to think about our common goals and needs. Reach out to your fellow members in SETAC, encourage your colleagues to see the benefit of the interactions membership brings, at all geographic levels. That is the unique aspect of SETAC. It allows us to act locally while connecting and effecting globally. Isn’t that a laudable aim for environmental scientists?

Author’s contact information: ross.smith@hydrobiology.biz

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