Brown and Caldwell is honoring world-renowned groundwater expert John A. Cherry with a Lifetime Achievement Award at Battelle's 8th International Conference on Remediation of Chlorinated and Recalcitrant Compounds in Monterey, Calif., this week. He recently talked with BC Water News about his career and why his retirement thus far has been a nonstarter.
MAY 22, 2012

10 Minutes With …

John A. Cherry

How did you get started in the remediation field?
Basically by chance. I got my first academic position at the University of Manitoba in 1967. I had a vision for my career and that vision did not include anything to do with groundwater remediation or contamination.

However, within a few days a young engineering student knocked on my door and told me about her summer project at a nearby nuclear research facility. She was asked to study the area where they were disposing of nuclear waste in pits in the ground, and her conclusion was that these pits were leaking radioactivity. So her direction to me was to get out there and get some research going. I didnít think this was a particularly good idea but I went anyway and they had lots of research money for me to get going.

That was a wonderful bit of advice from an undergraduate student and after studying radioactivity in the ground for about a decade I branched out. Then in the 1980s, I moved into the area of industrial site contamination and thatís what Iíve been focused on ever since.

What have been the most significant changes in the field over the course of your career?
There have been many but Iíd say the big one has been the use of site conceptual models and acquisition of appropriate field data to build the site conceptual model. Weíve known how important it was since the 1980s, but itís taken a long time for the profession to evolve to the point where it is now being done at a number of sites at a very high level. What weíre starting to see now is a better use of the scientific method in making remediation decisions — although we still have a long way to go.

What future opportunities in the field seem most exciting to you now?
Surprisingly, although Iíve been in this field for nearly five decades, there are many exciting things that Iím enthusiastic about. Although computers have been powerful for decades, it has taken a long time for advanced numerical models to become truly important in contaminated sites work. Weíre arriving at a point now where very sophisticated computer models can be used much more effectively because it is now possible to get three-dimensional field data of the types needed for these models to play their proper role. The models can contribute strongly to guiding acquisition of field data and then when theyíre calibrated with good field data, they can contribute to the making of better decisions concerning the transport and fate of contaminants and related remediation actions.

What has been the most helpful resource to you in your work?
My collaborators. I owe all my accomplishments to my wonderful collaborations with fellow faculty members, research associates and of course with graduate students. They share ideas, they provide advice and encouragement, and fortunately they correct me when Iím wrong.

What accomplishments are you most proud of in your career?
In 1988, I helped start the University Consortium for Field-Focused Groundwater Contamination Research, which involves eight universities — four in the United States and four in Canada. As the founding director, Iíve continued in this position even now in my retirement.

This organization is unique in that it receives large funding from many corporations and also government agencies, and has continuously for 24 years. Iím proud because it has provided many, many excellent research opportunities for numerous graduate students across North America. The students are out there dealing with real problems, meeting people from industry, government and academia, getting their hands dirty, and appreciating the range of interesting problems that are in need of solutions.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the field of environmental remediation?
Always be curious. Donít automatically accept whatever the conventional view happens to be at the moment. Question your superiors. Think outside the box and strive to do work that leads to a sustainable world.

This isn't your first Lifetime Achievement Award. What do these kinds of honors mean to you?
Of course Iím honored to be in the same category as the previous recipients, the very distinguished colleagues Iíve known for many decades. More importantly, it calls attention to the work my colleagues and I are doing. In a world thatís moving so fast itís one thing to do a piece of work youíre proud of and itís another thing to get anyone to pay attention to it.

How is retirement going?
As a retiree I’m a failure. I retired officially five years ago and Iím now an adjunct professor and I still direct the consortium. I love to get up and go to work because of the stimulating conversations about new data and novel ideas that I know will happen with my faculty colleagues, research associates and students.

What do you do when you're not working?
I work most of the time but I do look forward to times when Iím not working. I enjoy visiting my children and four young grandchildren, and spending time out in nature, usually out on the lake in my canoe.

And when I only have a short time to take a break, I love to play hockey. Itís a safe game because you have all that equipment on and itís against the rules to hurt your fellow players. So you can play a good long time.


Name: John A. Cherry

Title: Founding director of the University Consortium for Field-Focused Groundwater Contamination Research and adjunct professor in the School of Engineering at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

Background: Cherry is a hydrogeologist who holds geological engineering degrees from the University of Saskatchewan and University of California, Berkeley, and earned a Ph.D. in hydrogeology from the University of Illinois in 1966.

He joined the faculty at the University of Waterloo in 1971 for field research on the migration and fate of contaminants in groundwater and their remediation. He retired from Waterloo in 2006, where he is now a Distinguished Professor Emeritus.

He co- authored the textbook ďGroundwaterĒ with R.A. Freeze (1979), which is still in print, and co-edited and co-authored several chapters in the book ďDense Chlorinated Solvents and Other DNAPLs in GroundwaterĒ (1996). He has participated in the development of technologies for groundwater monitoring and remediation, co-holds several patents, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and has received awards from scientific and professional societies in Canada, the U.K. and the United States, most recently from the Groundwater Resources Association of California.

He held the Research Chair in Contaminant Hydrogeology at the University of Waterloo from 1996 to 2006 and currently, as an Adjunct Professor, is the Director of the University Consortium for Field-Focused Groundwater Contamination Research, established in 1988 at the University of Waterloo and now based at the University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, and he is an Honorary Professor at the University of Hong Kong.

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