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Reflections on the first SOLUTIONS General Assembly

December 15, 2014
GA pic

Group picture of the SOLUTIONS family at the General Assembly 2014. Image Deltares.

This week, we feature two guest posts from scientists at MARS’ sister project SOLUTIONS.  In this piece, Thomas-Benjamin Seiler (RWTH Aachen), David Lopez-Herraez and Werner Brack (UFZ Leipzig) reflect on the first SOLUTIONS General Assembly, which took place in October 2014.

“Are the fish from European rivers safe to eat?” It’s a simple but crucial question that Sibylle Ermler, environmental researcher at Brunel University in the UK, seeks to answer as a member of the SOLUTIONS ‘family’.  The first SOLUTIONS general assembly brought together questions like this from researchers across Europe, and created a space to collaborate and share ideas and potential solutions.

SOLUTIONS (project factsheet pdf) is the project name of the collaborative endeavour entitled “Solutions for present and future emerging pollutants in land and water resources management” for the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development of the European Commission under the coordination of Werner Brack, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, UFZ, Germany. With funding budget of nearly 12 million Euro and the involvement of organisations from 17 European countries, SOLUTIONS is a major effort in European environmental research to ensure future ecological quality of our freshwater bodies as required by the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD).

Solutions General Assembly

From 13th to 16th October 2014, the SOLUTIONS consortium – consisting of a total of 39 partner institutions from academia, official authorities and business, and more than 100 scientists and professionals at all different levels of education – held their first annual general assembly. This gathering event was hosted by Jos van Gils and his group from the Dutch partner Deltares at their headquarters in the city of Delft, and had many unusual and productive features.

Attendees were challenged by a wealth of diverse communication and discussion formats including: conventional meetings focusing on sub-project and work-package tasks and oral presentations on SOLUTIONS’ progress; thematic workshops on risk assessment and on innovative regulation of chemicals promoting the dialog among participants using a fishbowl approach; and self-organised conversations on the project’s overarching issues using an open space methodology to address the most urgent questions. The SOLUTIONS general assembly even had its own Science Slam contest.

One highlight for sure was the mini-conference reporting on SOLUTIONS progress, featuring 30 5-minute presentations on all kind of different work conducted within the first year. Outcomes clearly showed that the project’s start has been very proficient. Positive feedback from our stakeholders promises that SOLUTIONS is likely to have major impacts on the way freshwater management will be done in the future in Europe and maybe even worldwide.

Thematic workshop “Innovative regulatory framework” where conversation and discussion between participants followed a “fishbowl” approach. Image SOLUTIONS

Thematic workshop “Innovative regulatory framework” where conversation and discussion between participants followed a “fishbowl” approach. Image: SOLUTIONS

Solutions-orientated and effects-based approaches

The general assembly addressed all major elements of a solutions-oriented approach – i.e. one that investigates the ‘cocktail’ of dissolved chemicals present in water – in prioritising and assessing emerging pollutants in the water cycle through monitoring, modelling and abatement. Monitoring-based approaches in SOLUTIONS have a strong focus on effect-based tools and multi- and non-target chemical analysis. Both are applied for screening and in-depth site-specific evaluation of freshwater contaminants.

Chemical monitoring for freshwaters is often focused on regulated substances which are known to pose a threat to aquatic ecosystems.  However, because there are so many new and novel chemicals entering freshwaters, the effect-based approach seeks to understand the ecological effects of the mixed chemical ‘cocktail’ present in water, and then to potentially link these effects to suitable management solutions (for more, see this European Commission report pdf).

Sonja Kaišarević of University of Novi Sad in Serbia wants to use such tools “to identify the culprits that are impacting environmental health.” She feels proud to be part of SOLUTIONS. The same holds true for Fangxing Yang, who is a postdoc at the UFZ in Leipzig, Germany. His task is to work on the “effect-directed analysis (EDA) in fish.” This approach aims to use biomarkers (i.e. indicators of biological state) and other effect-based tools together with in-depth chemical analysis for an effect-directed analysis of emerging freshwater pollutants in fish. Fangxing hopes to develop this effect-directed analysis approach as a tool to better protect the environment and human health. “I am feeling very comfortable within SOLUTIONS“, he says.

Joining up the pathways of chemical pollution

Small breakout groups worked on issues raised during plenary discussions or suggested by participants. One group on so-called Adverse Outcome Pathways (AOPs) tried to better outline how this approach can, and will, be implemented into the SOLUTIONS framework. The AOP approach aims to link effects on all different biological levels – from (sub)cellular mechanisms such as enzyme inhibition or DNA damage to impact on organs – with the eventually observed adverse effect of a contamination. The transfer from the effect on the individual – e.g. a single fish – to the population and the ecosystem was of special interest for the group. A key challenge arising from the discussion was that scientists have to define and agree on what an adverse effect of pollution actually is.

Predicting and managing chemical pollution

While monitoring is a key approach for the assessment of contamination today, it requires support from predictive approaches to identify chemicals that may become a problem in future. Emission, transport and fate modelling tries to draw insights out of the wealth of data from chemical regulation. Claudia Lindim from Stockholm University provided an impressive example of simulating PFOS (a man-made chemical used as a fabric stain repellent) concentrations in the Danube river basin.

However, SOLUTIONS does cover more than monitoring and modelling of contamination and risks only. For Annemarie van Wezel from the Dutch KWR Watercycle Research Institute, a key question is: “Where and how to spend limited resources for pollution abatement in a way to improve valuable natural areas and drinking water resources?” For Annemarie, combined chemical monitoring and modelling helped to identify the highest priority locations for an upgrade of wastewater treatment in the Netherlands.

Bringing all these different aspects together and establishing integrated and consistent roadmaps towards the anticipated products of SOLUTIONS was a big task during this general assembly. The enormous enthusiasm and involvement of all partners and numerous discussions from bilateral to workshop format helped to bring the project a big step forward. 

Networking at the SOLUTIONS GA in Delft. Also lunch and coffee breaks were strongly used for exchange of thoughts and ideas. Image Deltares

Networking at the SOLUTIONS general assembly in Delft. Image Deltares

The importance of young and early-career scientists

Numerous young and early-career scientists played an important role in the general assembly. They took the opportunity to present in different formats, to understand the concepts and to meet many of those scientists they knew from academic literature. For PhD students Ying Shao and Björn Deutschmann from RWTH Aachen University in Germany, the general assembly was especially useful to better understand the high complexity of the project, and to find their role within the consortium.

“I am overwhelmed”, Ying says, “but desperate to learn.” Her task in SOLUTIONS is to identify pollution hot spots and elucidate modes-of-action of freshwater pollutants using small-scale in vitro bioassays (i.e. using tissues or cells in the lab to study the effect of pollutants). Her work is supported by a four-year PhD fellowship from the China Science Council (CSC). After finishing her thesis Ying wants to return to China and contribute to environmental quality at home. Björn feels quite “challenged.” He works on a larger scale than Ying, investigating certain biomarkers in feral and lab-exposed fish. Both students want to help to make a step forward in Adverse Outcome Pathway definition and bring the concept to the organismal level.

The Delft meeting helped both young researchers to better shape their theses. They used the fantastic networking opportunities to establish valuable contacts with other members of the SOLUTIONS family. With a consortium spreading all over Europe, and reaching to China, Brazil and Australia, proper communication is a real challenge, even nowadays with all different kind of digital conversation channels. Meeting up face-to-face is still the most efficient way to exchange ideas, discuss problems, and make decisions. In these terms the general assembly was a huge success.

Science slam and a singing professor: a diverse and supportive project

The SOLUTIONS science slam on Wednesday evening proved that internal project communication does not have to be a dry, rather serious activity. Five slammers brought on stage high creativity in presenting their science to colleagues. The science slam was carried out without slideshow presentations and involved such diverse media as movie clips, live imaging and custom-made cardboard chemical analysis equipment. The winning contribution, however, borrowed from hard rock pioneers Deep Purple. Dirk Bunke of Öko-Institut e.V., Freiburg, Germany, got the whole audience to sing along “Smoke on the water – pollutants of tomorrow.”

A singing professor, highly enthusiastic PhD students, experts on AOPs, bioassays, chemical analysis, statistics and modelling; laboratories equipped with state-of-the-art scientific devices; and an unlimited amount of creativity to find the best solutions: the Delft general assembly showed that the real strength of the project lies in a consortium so broad and diverse that virtually any research problem of any colleague can be solved by someone from the project. This unique capability of the SOLUTIONS family is good news for environmental quality of European freshwater bodies and promises very valuable results and developments.

Coming together. The SOLUTIONS GA facilitated scientific exchange and helped the consortium to better get known to each other. Image Deltares

Coming together. The SOLUTIONS GA facilitated scientific exchange and helped the consortium to better get known to each other. Image Deltares

Bringing together projects and collaborators from across the world

Armelle Herbert could be one of the people to benefit from the project outcomes. She is a representative of Veolia Environnement Recherche & Innovation France, and a member of the SOLUTIONS stakeholder board, a panel of decision-makers and end-users involved throughout the life of the project. She liked the innovative approach of the general assembly, its interactivity, and the ease with which she could start conversations with the participants. She enjoyed that it was no ‘classical’ scientific conference, and the mini-conference was a particularly refreshing experience for her. For the first time, our Stakeholder Board members from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Rob Burgess, and Environment Canada, Mark Hewitt, joined a SOLUTIONS meeting. They identified plenty of common interests, problems to solve and approaches to take and presented the North American perspective on emerging pollutants in the Stakeholder Board meeting.

The general assembly was also very happy to host Sebastian Birk representing the partner project MARS and Damià Barceló as the coordinator of GlobAqua. Close collaboration between the projects has been identified as a key step to increase the scientific impact towards better understanding and protecting aquatic ecosystems against multiple stressors including emerging pollutants. In outstanding presentations, SOLUTIONS participants learnt about the concepts and approaches of both partner projects.

SOLUTIONS: a great opportunity

“In the beginning I was overwhelmed by the complexity”, Knut Erik Tollefsen of NIVA, Norway, suggests. Knut Erik is the leader of the whole working package on effect-based methods, and had a significant share in writing the entire SOLUTIONS proposal. But still for him the project is a challenge, showing the large effort the scientists put into their work. “Then I was very positively surprised by the assembly of competence within the project consortium”, he continues, which makes him “confident that we will achieve what we aim for.” Andreas Focks of ALTERRA in The Netherlands adds, “this project is a great opportunity to achieve things that were not achievable before.” Certainly for most participants the general assembly in Delft brought the very same feeling.

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