MEET DON SCAVIA: The Man Behind the Research

Public Affairs
Release Date: 

NAME: Don Scavia

TITLE: Special Counsel to the President for Sustainability; Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute; professor of Natural Resources and Environment and Civil and Environmental Engineering.

With more than three decades of experience, University of Michigan’s Don Scavia has spent the majority of his adult life learning about, conducting experiments on, and teaching others of the issues affecting freshwater and coastal marine ecosystems.

His research has been instrumental in uncovering solutions to reverse the negative effects of human activities on the environment. Read more on Don's background here. 

In the first of a new feature series offering a glimpse into the lives of the campus' sustainability leaders, we sat down for a chat with Don at his Ann Arbor home.

Brains and brawn
I was a high school quarterback and received a football scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a running back. During my sophomore year, after a lot of injuries the coach wanted to move me to the offensive line. I decided I'd much rather run around defensive guys than into them, so I quit at that point and focused on my studies in environmental engineering. 

The NOT so dream job
At RPI, I studied as an environmental engineer and realized I was being trained to build and design sewage treatment plants; not exactly what I had in mind. I was very interested in and cared about the environment and I wanted to work on environmental issues.

First gig
I landed a job running a summer field program for an NSF-funded Student Originated Studies project studying 20 lakes. This is where I first got a sense of the impacts of pollution on lakes. 

Paging Dr. Patch  
I had a large field program on Lake Michigan, where we'd go out on the lake and do our own sampling and experiments. For the first time I was generating my own data to use in my computer models. But I got seasick every time we went out on the lake, so I wore those Transderm Scop patches behind my ear. I was Dr. Patch for three-years. 

Favorite Great Lake
Most people would say Lake Superior. It IS majestic, but my favorite is Lake Michigan. It's where I did most of my work and I know it the best.  

He sees the dead (zones)
Ten years ago, I developed a computer model to predict the size of dead zones – those areas without enough oxygen to support fish. It's been used to guide how to shrink dead zones by reducing the amount of the pollution flowing into the water. We use this technique every year to predict the size of the zones, and every year it's a reminder of the problems we have in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay. It puts continued pressure on those who should do something about it.

Career milestone 
This past year, colleagues and I published a paper showing for the first time that because of the zebra and quagga mussel invasion, the productivity of lakes Michigan and Huron have decreased so much that they are now approaching that of Lake Superior. We are in a different place compared to where we were in the 70s and 80s, when the first International water quality agreement was developed to manage the problem. The lakes are clearer now, but there is very little food out there for fish to eat.

Early lessons learned
My parents grew up during the Depression. When we were young, my mother washed and reused plastic bags and my father worked several jobs at the same time. They worked hard and didn't waste anything. That sticks with you.

Crime & recycling 
When my oldest daughter was in high school, I found a plastic bag of empty beer cans under her bed. She said, "Yes, we were drinking, but I had to recycle the cans." She knew she was breaking the law, but she also knew she had to recycle!

Family outing
When our kids were young and my wife Ellen and I took them camping and hiking, they would mostly complain. Later as they got older, we noticed they would bring their college friends to the same places we brought them to as children, and seeing my younger daughter take her family camping convinced me that an appreciation of the environment was infused in them at a young age. 

Trading places
Ellen is an environmental scientist and was the head of an environmental compliance agency and worked for an environmental engineering consulting firm. It’s interesting that her training was in biology and mine was in engineering, but our careers crossed paths when she worked for an engineering consulting firm and I moved into ecology.

Living green
We do our part to live green. We own a Prius, buy organic and local goods when we can, grow some of our own food, drink tap water, and keep the house at lower temps in the winter.

Nature's mosquito repellent
We have a bat house. It's great to watch bats fly around the place and eat mosquitoes. It works great. 
Very locally grown
Ellen is a consummate "carbon rancher." We grow a lot of our own vegetables in the backyard; beans, peppers, eggplant, asparagus, tomatoes, garlic, and other vegetables, including rhubarb. My specialty is making strawberry rhubarb pie. 

Christmas countdown
Ellen and I participated in Audubon’s Backyard Bird Count.
We identified and counted birds that came to our feeders during a certain period and sent the information into a system that determines North American bird distributions. It’s not overly scientific, but it does show that over time birds are migrating north in response to global warming. 

Living a more sustainable life is as easy as one, two, three 
1) Drink tap water – please.
2) Buy Local: People should realize the power of their purchasing decisions.
3) Buy less: Do you really need it?

Traveling man
We don’t often travel to big cities. We prefer places like Brazil, where for example we did a three ecosystem tour that included the Amazon Basin, the arid cerrado, and wetlands of the Pantanal. When we went to Peru, we spent very little time in Lima, and instead visited the Andes, Machu Picchu, and a river in the Amazon Basin. Most of our travels take us outside the city and into the environment.
Unforgettable travel experience 
Kenya. I can’t wait to go back again. To be amongst the lions and cheetahs, watching the giraffes and elephants walk by, all in their natural habitat –– I really can’t describe it. 

Guilty pleasure
Golfing. But I do talk with course managers about fertilizers, replace my divots, and spend a lot of time in the woods.

Birthday wish 
I turn 60 this summer, in August, so we are planning a kayaking trip down the Big Two Hearted River in the Upper Peninsula.  

Sleepless in Ann Arbor: What keeps him up at night
One word: China. Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to appreciate the scale of what is happening there. The number of people, the massive amount of growth and construction -- China uses 40 percent of the world’s cement and steel. They are growing and prospering at the same time. When they become as prosperous as the West, there is no way to support it in business as usual. How is the world going to adjust to China, India, and others as they come out of poverty? How are we going to rationalize resources across the Earth? It’s mind boggling.

Tapped out
While energy is certainly a big and important issue, the sleeping giant is water.  
Even though the earth is covered by 2/3 water, most of it is not accessible and we don’t have it where we want it, nor in the quality needed. The amount of available and useful water is diminishing and the demand for it is increasing. The definition of a renewable resource is a resource that is not diminished by its use. By that definition, water is no longer a renewable resource.  And that’s a scary thought because, while there are alternatives to fossil fuels, there are no alternatives to water.

U-M – leaders and best
With 19 schools and colleges in virtually every critical discipline that matters and a $1.14 billion research enterprise, we have the extraordinary academic programming and intellectual capital needed to better understand and tackle the most complex sustainability issues.

Not a 9-5 grind
When it’s part of who you are, it’s not work. When writing e-mails at night or doing analysis on the weekend, I don’t feel like I’m working because it’s not a job. It’s a passion.  I love what I’m doing.

The future looks bright
One of the most fun and invigorating parts of coming back to U-M is interacting with students. They knock my socks off. They are bold enough to go directly to President Coleman and the Regents, but not with half-baked, naïve kids stuff. They thoroughly analyze and benchmark their ideas, and bring solid material to the table. The Graham Undergraduate Scholars and Doctoral Fellows, and members of the Student Sustainability Initiative are all smart and have an awareness of the world around them. They have been exposed to a lot more than we were growing up. They’re going to save the world.