Suzanne McGowan appointed Professor of Aquatic Ecosystem Dynamics

Suzanne McGowan
© Perro de Jong / NIOO-KNAW

Suzanne McGowan appointed Professor of Aquatic Ecosystem Dynamics

“Water ecosystems are changing fast”

Press inquiries

Meet the new Special Professor of Aquatic Ecosystem Dynamics: Suzanne McGowan. As of 2024 she is appointed at Utrecht University. Her chair offers a unique combination between the university's faculties of Science and Geosciences. McGowan integrates this with her main affiliation as the Head of Aquatic Ecology at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). As a professor, she aims to uncover how water ecosystems have been functioning, and how the major changes on our planet affect this.

Aquatic ecosystems are dynamic and vital for supporting life. But things can also become ‘too dynamic’. Freshwater systems are highly vulnerable to environmental stress caused by pollution and climate change, as they receive water from rapidly changing terrestrial landscapes. “Aquatic diversity is declining faster than in any other biome,” says McGowan.

From weeks to centuries

Traditional aquatic ecology approaches have focused on relatively short timescales that can be measured with experiments such as weeks or seasons. And on aquatic systems that are easily accessible, as opposed to those that are most environmentally relevant. The new chair in Aquatic Ecosystem Dynamics will bring in important expertise at the intersection between ecology and geoscience – starting with longer timescales.

“Long-term aquatic ecology research has proven a powerful complement to experimental research,” says McGowan. “The power of combining approaches from the palaeo-sciences, which cover decades to centuries, to the experimental approaches in biology has real potential to add value in our understanding of the why and how ecosystems are changing.”

  • Suzanne McGowan
    McGowan is sampling freshwater systems varying from lakes in Greenland...
  • Suzanne McGowan ponds in the northern part of Vietnam.

Restoration strategies

An example of a paleoscience that can contribute to this is paleolimnology. It studies natural sedimentary archives, with sediment core analyses. “This can really extend ecological records back for centuries or even millennia. Long-term studies can establish past variability.”

Applying this approach can help in detecting ecosystem collapses or ‘state changes’, looking at the emergence of water quality issues during the Anthropocene and help to define strategies for lake restoration and remediation. “These techniques form a powerful toolkit for understanding and caring for our precious water bodies.”

There is a long history of expertise in palaeo-environmental work at Utrecht. The new professor will build on this, using the lake sediment records for assessing ecosystem changes. McGowan: “This fruitful collaboration can help us to determine the effects of eutrophication and pollution.”

Lakes deep and far

McGowan has already applied palaeo approaches to lakes in Greenland, Northwestern Europe, the Philippines, Malaysia, including the deepest lake in the world – Lake Baikal – and to shallow floodplain basins in several deltas across the world.

The power of combining approaches from the palaeo-sciences to the experimental approaches in biology can really extend ecological records back for centuries or even millennia.

Prof. Dr Suzanne McGowan

International research and education

Advancing research and education related to integrating long-term data with experimental data on the drivers of modern changes in aquatic species distribution and ecosystem functioning is the goal. What will the future bring? “Long-term ecological research can help to tackle the pervasive problems of pollution and climate change, and understanding how they relate to the biodiversity crisis.”

International research ties

Before moving to the Netherlands in 2021 to work at NIOO-KNAW, McGowan was a Professor at the University of Nottingham. Here, she retains a Honorary Professorship in the School of Geography. She is also a Research Associate at the British Geological Survey, and is looking towards strengthening linkages between the Netherlands and the UK.

The endowed chair is established by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Within Utrecht University it is linking the Departments of Biology and Physical Geography.

With this appointment, the NIOO and Utrecht University strengthen their collaboration by sharing knowledge and facilities. Furthermore, the research of this chair takes place at the interface between the faculties of Geosciences and Science within the university. Utrecht University therefore expects that the chair will enhance research and collaboration between the two faculties. McGowan: “I enjoy working across disciplines using a combination of approaches, and so I look forward to connecting research and teaching across the faculties.”