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New GLIER director hopes to unite campus environmental researchers

Over the next five years, Dan Heath hopes to unite the wide variety of researchers across campus studying environmental issues.

“I really want to expand the role of environmental research at the University of Windsor,” said Dr. Heath, a biology professor who takes over as the new director of the University’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research in May.

“Right now GLIER is a very tight and very productive group of individuals and what I’d like to do is expand that to encompass other researchers who are doing environmental research but are sort of isolated in various departments,” he said. “I’d like to see them academically attached to GLIER so that they can take advantage” of everything the research institute has to offer.

GLIER is a multidisciplinary institute that includes nine faculty members who work with collaborators from such disciplines as biology, geology, chemistry, engineering, marine biology, molecular biology, genetics and ecology. Researchers there study a variety of complex environmental problems such as climate change, aquatic invasive species, pollution and other stressors on large lakes, their watersheds and marine environments. 

Heath – who will discuss his new role as GLIER director on CJAM 99.1 FM this afternoon – began his 27-year career researching conservation genetics as a graduate student at McGill University after completing an undergraduate degree in physics. He eventually earned a PhD in animal science at the University of British Columbia. Since then, he’s held academic positions at the University of South Carolina and the University of Northern British Columbia, before joining GLIER and the Department of Biological Sciences in 2000.

In his interview, Heath also talks about his own research program. Some current projects he and his team of students are working on include studying the DNA in the stomachs of predatory fish to detect for the presence of either endangered or invasive species in aquatic ecosystems; and exploring whether certain species of fish in the Detroit River may have genetically evolved to the point where they can no longer be considered reliable indicators of contaminant levels.

“It’s scary and it’s exciting” to see the prospect of those fish no longer being reliable biomarkers, Heath said. “As a conservationist and an environmental scientist, it’s very worrying, because it means that a lot of the data we’ve used to determine whether cleanup projects are working may be problematic. On the other hand, as an evolutionary biologist, this is evolution in action.”

Heath will discuss these and other issues on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m.

Read a Windsor Star story about Dan Heath.