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Associate professor, Center for Environmental Studies
Every semester, as part of his graduate biology course in water pollution, professor Paul Bukaveckas invites professionals in the fields of water management, regulation and advocacy into his classroom to discuss their jobs. “Students are attracted to biology,” he explained, “but they don’t know what they can do with a biology degree.”
Students might network with staff from the Department of Environmental Quality, or the James River Association, in the hopes of crystallizing their future career plans. And even if they don’t, his students come away from the course with two highly sought skills attractive to any employers in the field: the ability to speak intelligently about environmental issues and to analyze and communicate environmental data.
An ecosystem ecologist specializing in rivers and estuaries, Dr. Bukaveckas has spent decades refining those same skills. His distinguished career informing public policy through research includes two Fulbright scholarships to work with colleagues at the Coastal Research and Planning Institute at Klaipeda University in Lithuania and a Gledden Fellowship with the Centre for Water Research at the University of Western Australia.
Dr. Bukaveckas received his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Indiana University and has been with VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies and Department of Biology since 2003. It’s been a good fit with his curiosity about the natural world and his penchant for applied research. “Science is driven by questions you’re interested in,” he said. “That’s the career of an academic.” He’s especially interested in the factors that control the development of algal blooms in the tidal freshwater segment of the James River and is participating in a six-year, $3 million project to evaluate existing water quality standards and the associated nutrient load allocations.
Scientists in Lithuania are studying similar problems with algal blooms in the Baltic Sea. Dr. Bukaveckas, the son of Lithuanian immigrants who settled in Chicago, has made more than a half dozen trips to the former Soviet bloc nation since the 1990s to exchange information with fellow scientists, deliver seminars and lectures in their native tongue, and collaborate on research papers. “When I walk down the street in Lithuania,” he said, “it reminds me of the neighborhood where I grew up.”
A career studying water seemed inevitable for Dr. Bukaveckas when you consider his lifelong interest in all things aquatic. He was the kid in kindergarten who raced from recess to claim the desk closest to the classroom aquarium. Likewise, he spent countless hours with his father at Chicago’s famed Shedd Aquarium, marveling at the sea creatures, and with his family in a cabin by a lake, collecting crayfish and clams on their annual two-week summer vacations.
“I thought it was very mysterious and interesting what happened underwater,” he remembered. Dr. Bukaveckas considered studying oceanography in college but realized that studying inland waters was more practical and just as interesting.
Today, his research into nutrient runoff and algal blooms helps professionals working in water management make informed decisions about preventing and mitigating pollutants that can lead to poor water clarity, oxygen depletion and restricted growth of aquatic grasses where fish live. They need a basis for their policies and decisions, he said, “and that’s where the science comes in.”