Before They Were Scientists: Jonathan Bujak

Dr. Jonathan Bujak (on the right in the photo above) had a reputation for causing trouble, one that started on his first day of school. Read on to learn how doing a little better in chemistry helped him survive the 1960s, how chance played a very special role in his life, and how finding a fern in an Arctic ocean sediment core completely changed the trajectory of his career.

Lea: How about you tell me a little bit about where you were in middle school between the ages of 10 and 14?

Jonathan: I was in a town called Blackpool, a vacation resort on the northwest coast of England in Lancashire. The interesting thing about the school I went to – it was called Arnold School – was that it was part of the public school system in the U.K. “Public school” in the U.K. means a completely different thing than “public school” in North America. Public schools were schools like Eton and Harrow – these were very traditional places. When I went to Arnold, half the people were boarders and half the people were “day boys” who commuted to school daily. But that was back in the 1960s when schools were very different in England.

Did you ever get into trouble at school?

My first day of school was quite interesting. I was seven years old and starting “junior school” which is between the ages of seven and eleven. We all went into the classroom and there were high windows where you could look out – so I stood on a desk to look out of the window. The desk tipped over, and the ink spilled out of the inkwell since we had fountain pens back then. The teacher came in for the first hour. All the kids pointed at me and said, “Teacher! He stood on his desk and knocked it over!” I was saying, “I’m really sorry! It was an accident!” She sent me off to the headmaster. The first hour, the first day of school. Have you heard of corporal punishment? He went to his cupboard that he had against the wall – a long, tall cupboard – he opened it and he had an array of sticks, called canes, to inflict different amounts of pain and some were splayed out at the end. He grabbed one of those and told me to hold out my hand and gave me, what he called, “six of the best.” That really hurt, but I think the shock of being caned was worse than the pain.

She sent me off to the headmaster. The first hour, the first day of school. Have you heard of corporal punishment?

The public school system took quite a bit of getting used to. It was like Tom Brown’s School Days — back in the nineteenth century. I managed to get through junior school without having to go see the headmaster too many times. Then I went to the “senior school” when I was eleven years old in 1960. I ended up doing OK, but I had to carry the reputation with me all through school of being a “bad boy,” which I picked up on that first day of school when I got caned.

It was quite a tough environment and this was a hangover from the Victorian ages. Once you get that reputation of being bad, you tend to live up to it just a little bit. Smoking behind the toilets, taking my cap off when wearing my uniform when I was walking home… One situation was that I had to cross a bridge over a railway track to walk home from school with my best friend and we decided to take a shortcut. We were smoking, without our hats on, ties kind of undone… and one of the prefects saw us. These are the students that were appointed to help the teachers – they reported us. Again, a visit to the headmaster. So we got our stories straight, “Yes, we’re sorry, sir, but we were both crossing the bridge and my hat blew off my head onto the railway tracks so I had to go down and get my hat. And, no, we weren’t smoking.” Six of the best… but we actually had a choice. We went to school Monday through Friday and Saturday morning as well. They always gave us a lot of exams on Saturday morning to make sure we couldn’t go out on a Friday night and enjoy ourselves… we had to stay at home doing homework. We had a choice between having six of the best or Saturday afternoon detention. Well, you’re not going to lose your Saturday afternoon. So, of course, “Six of the best, please, sir”.

Then we had a new headmaster when we were 17 and we were between O level and A level exams – one year before leaving school. The new headmaster walked into our class and said, “Stand up, Bujak. Stand up, Ladkin. I’ve heard about your reputation, I’ve got my eye on you.” That was basically it… I managed to scrape through my exams, between my reputation and not being that interested in what I was taking, but I managed to get through to University. We had to make a choice between six universities. I picked math and chemistry for the first five, but one of them had something that sounded interesting called geology. It was something that I’d been interested in since I was young when I collected fossils and rocks.

[Geology] was something that I’d been interested in since I was young when I collected fossils and rocks.

I managed to get into Sheffield University where I took physics, chemistry and geology. But I got really interested in the geology course – just like everyone else who took it. They said they would take the top 30 students out of 300 and these students would be able to take Special Honors Geology. I managed to get accepted for the course and take those classes. That was the key: it was a matter of being interested in what you want to do, and having lecturers or teachers who were interested in teaching you and teaching you well. That’s the difference between failing or succeeding – being interested. From that point on, I did well because I loved the subject, and at that time Sheffield was one of the premier universities for geology. When I finished my three-year degree I never even thought about doing post-graduate work. But two of the lecturers came up to me, Dr. Charles Downie and Dr. Roger Neves, they said, “Bujak, if you want, you can do a PhD. Who would you like to do it with?” That’s how I came to do a PhD with Charles Downie who pioneered the study of fossil microplankton called dinoflagellates.

What did your parents want you to be when you grew up? What did they do?

They didn’t really give me any advice at all; they basically wanted me to do whatever made me happy. I had no idea about what I really wanted to do although I was interested in fossils… one thing I did want to do was join the Royal Air Force (RAF) and fly because that’s what my dad did. I flew with him in his plane, and that’s what I wanted to do, but I wore glasses and I thought I couldn’t be a pilot in the Air Force, so I had to let that go. After that it was a matter of deciding between being a brain surgeon [laughs] or a geologist. My parents were very, very good – they just said, “As long as you’re happy with what you do, that’s fine with us.” They had a hotel in Blackpool because my dad wanted to be independent and own his own business after he left the RAF. At that time in the 1950s and 60s, Blackpool was booming so it was a way they could be their own bosses. It was almost a fluke that I ended up in geology, but I managed to get into Sheffield where I put down “geology” and if I hadn’t done that I don’t know what I would have ended up doing.

One of my choices was in Chelsea – College of Art and Technology – and that was number two out of my list of six college choices. It would have completely changed my life if I had gone to Chelsea. That was in the swinging 60s – the Chelsea College of Art and Technology was on the Kings Road – this is where all the ‘beautiful people’ were, such as Jimi Hendrix and all of the flower people. It’s interesting to think about what a difference that single decision made to my life. 10% lower in chemistry and I wouldn’t have had the grades to go to Sheffield and I would have gone to Chelsea. It’s really remarkable when you look back at these points in your life and think about where the road branches. King’s Road in Chelsea was the place in those days, where everything happened — every rock band, all the cool people. I don’t think I would have survived the 1960s if I had gotten 10% less in chemistry class.

I don’t think I would have survived the 1960s if I had gotten 10%  less in chemistry class.
Playing off of that, how much of your scientific discoveries were due to chance?

Everything, in a way. You can direct things to a certain extent, but I was very fortunate. After graduate school I got a job in Dallas, Texas, and I hated it. They thought I had a cute accent, but they had never heard of a discotheque or The Beatles. Shortly after I got there I got a call from an old classmate at Sheffield who told me there was a job coming up in Nova Scotia at the Geological Survey of Canada – and that I might be interested in applying. So I did. The 10 years I spent in Nova Scotia on the Atlantic coast were a massive learning curve. It was located on the campus of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography which had research vessels going all over the world. The job description was one sentence, “Reconstruct the history of the Atlantic Ocean.” The geological history of the oceans was still a big unknown at that time. So that was serendipity – joining the Geological Survey of Canada. The Bedford Institute of Oceanography was full of very smart people and some real characters — one scientist would go out in his boat and play his accordion to the whales he was studying.

And the research was fascinating. In those days we didn’t understand why climate changed so dramatically from the greenhouse world of the dinosaurs to our present icehouse climate. Then, in 2004, the Arctic Coring Expedition recovered cores from sediments on the floor of the Arctic Ocean, close to the North Pole, capturing a critical moment 50 million years ago when the climate suddenly began to change. The core contained thousands and thousands of layers of a plant called Azolla — a floating freshwater fern. None of the geologists had really heard that much about the plant, so that cruise to the Arctic was another one of those pivotal moments in my life. What was a floating freshwater fern doing in the middle of an ocean? And why was it there at precisely the time when the Earth’s climate changed so dramatically?

So Henk Brinkhuis, who had been on the scientific cruise, invited a group of paleontologists and other geologists to meet at the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands. Henk also invited a botanist called Francisco Carrapico from the University of Lisbon and we became good friends during that meeting. Francisco is one of the world’s experts on modern Azolla and he explained that this plant is unique. There is no other plant like it in the world. It’s a ‘superorganism’ because it has symbiotic cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and it’s the only plant where the cyanobacteria are passed down generation after generation through the spores of the plant. So the two organisms have been co-evolving for millions of years into a completely new type of organism that has never been on the planet before.

This involves a similar process to one that occurred three billion years ago when mitochondria evolved due to the engulfment of one bacterium by another, giving rise to eukaryotic cells. And then again two and a half billion years ago when a cyanobacterium was engulfed by a eukaryote to eventually become the chloroplasts that characterize all plants. These two processes of ‘endosymbiosis’ eventually gave rise to all multicellular organisms, including you and me.

Azolla is now undergoing another symbiotic event — one that is occurring within the plant but outside its cells, and that is why Francisco proposed that Azolla is a unique “superorganism” unlike any other living plant. Farmers in the Far East have been worshiping this unique plant for thousands of years and they have temples dedicated to it because it can increase rice productivity three-fold — the cyanobacteria in the plant draw down nitrogen directly from the atmosphere as a fertilizer. Very few other plants are able to do that because they have to get their nitrogen fertilizer from the soil. Azolla can also be used as a renewable, low-cost livestock feed, food and biofuel source because it only needs a few centimeters of freshwater to grow, as it gets its nitrogen fertilizer directly from the atmosphere.

What was a floating freshwater fern doing in the middle of an ocean? And why was it there at precisely the time when the Earth’s climate changed so dramatically?

As the Earth’s population passes seven billion, more than half of those people need chemical fertilizers to provide the nitrogen needed to grow their food, but only 20-30% of those compounds are actually taken up by the plants. The rest goes into water bodies and the atmosphere where they do enormous harm. We are trapped into using chemical fertilizers to feed billions of people, but Azolla could help us by producing low-cost biofertilizer, livestock feed and food exactly where it is needed.

So I began to investigate how Azolla can help and my daughter, Alexandra, who has an Environmental Science degree from Manchester University, and I set up The Azolla Foundation to disseminate information about Azolla. Our Foundation associates now range from farmers in India to world-renowned geneticists at Duke University such as Kathleen Pryer.

What I want to do now is try to do some good and to help people by writing a book, The Azolla Story, with my daughter. We are also about to go to the Philippines to talk to students in high schools and colleges about Azolla and teach people how to use Azolla as a fertilizer and livestock feed.

I am happy to have the opportunity to help people. Sometimes you have dreams that you think will never come true, but you just have to persevere… even though there are a lot of times when you feel like it’s just not going to ever happen.

You mentioned that you wanted to give back in the last years of your life, so with that in mind, if you could give your middle school self some advice, what would it be?

Do what you really want to do. Do the things that interest you. I don’t like the word career, but make your “calling’’ something you like. Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole; you may as well do something that you think is worthwhile and that you also enjoy doing.

I’ve been fortunate because that’s what I’ve done. I’ve always told people that I’m lucky because my career is also my hobby — first with geology and now with Azolla.

Follow your heart.

What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life?

When I was in school I was always mediocre… middle of the class. Really, I wasn’t interested that much in what I was doing. I don’t like to use the word successful but I think that in terms of my science, my geology, it’s turned out OK. I have the respect of my peers, which is very important, and it’s a mutual respect because I’m part of a community of like-minded scientists. I think the thing my middle school self would be most surprised about is that I made a go of it and it turned out OK because some of my teachers at school told me that I’d never go very far.

Did you ever want to do something different than science?

No. I don’t think so. There was never any crisis for me. Certainly, in terms of different jobs that I had… Straight out of getting my PhD – I got a job offer and I thought, “I better grab that, because there may not be another one.” I won’t name any names of companies that I worked for, but there is one that I can think of in particular that I can point to and say, “That was the most miserable year of my life,” because I made a mistake in taking that job. It was just a total disaster. On my welcoming day to this job, 23 people in that group quit. Not because I was coming there, but because they were so fed up with the situation that they just quit en masse. I knew within an hour of getting there that it was a mistake and that I was going to leave.

Quite the opposite of that experience was my job with the Geological Survey of Canada (G.S.C.) at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (B.I.O.) —  it turned out to be the best job in the world. The G.S.C. and B.I.O. were full of young scientists, fresh and enthusiastic, with three ocean-going vessels that went on scientific cruises to the Arctic, the Pacific, and the Atlantic Ocean. The time I spent there was when I really learned my craft. Not when I did my PhD, or my undergraduate work, but at the G.S.C. and B.I.O. because of the people who were there. You could walk down the corridor and talk to experts on any aspect of geology or oceanography because they were all in the same building. And we sailed together, picnicked together, canoed along the same rivers and lakes used by the Mi’kmaq Indians hundreds of years ago, and we did science together. It was a wonderful time.

I ended up leaving because the learning curve flattened off for me. It was a question of if I wanted to stay and work on the same questions for the rest of my life, or to have new challenges. I’ve always been kind of a loner and I like to do my own thing. But those were the best years in terms of my career with colleagues who are still my close friends.

Did someone ever tell you that you were wrong?

Oh, yes. I was singled out. [exhales] Not because I was a rebel, but if you somehow get that reputation, for whatever reason, and suddenly one of the teachers gets it into their heads that you might be a little bit of a troublemaker. I wasn’t bad, but somehow you get a reputation and sometimes it’s not deserved.

And you may also get criticized about your work because that’s part of the peer review process, but you take that as constructive criticism. When you publish papers you have to accept that as a necessary part of the process to maintain objectivity and high standards.

I was always very lucky because I had very supportive parents. Having their confidence gives you confidence in yourself. Maybe they look at you through rose-colored spectacles, but that feeling of support carries you through your life.

Not because I was a rebel, but if you somehow get that reputation, for whatever reason, and suddenly one of the teachers gets it into their heads that you might be a little bit of a troublemaker.
What is a discovery that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?

I made a couple of… I don’t know if you’d call them discoveries… but I’ve put together a couple pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. Things roll around in my mind for a long time and then, suddenly, out pops the answer. For years people would attribute certain geological observations to one thing, but it never quite added up. Then you suddenly realize, “It happened because of that.” Once you see it, it becomes obvious and everyone responds, “Oh, yeah!” And then, years later, you’ll be on a website or read a scientific paper where they repeat that. And it’s not necessarily attributed to you, because other people pick up these things and then the origins of that gets lost. Nobody remembers who originally said it, but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that we’re all working towards the same thing – a better understanding of everything around us.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be – why would you want it, and what would you do with it?

To time travel. I would love to go back through history to see Ancient Egypt, to experience different snapshots in time – to London’s Covent Garden in the 1720s and 1730s… to so many places. India when the Buddha was there. And back beyond history, to millions of years ago… obviously I’d go back to see the dinosaurs. I’d like to go in my little TARDIS – just close that door and off I’d go with that strange noise.

I’m not sure I’d want to go forward in time. I’m worried it might be a dystopia. I wouldn’t like to see something really bad.

So… time travel. I guess that’s a bit obvious being a geologist.

Dr. Jonathan Bujak is the Director and CEO of Azolla Biosystems and Bujak Research. He also co-founded The Azolla Foundation with his environmental scientist daughter, Alexandra, to disseminate information about Azolla’s beneficial uses around the world. 

By | 2014-10-10T13:09:46+00:00 October 10th, 2014|

About the Author:

Lea Shell
Lea Shell is an entomologist and educator who devotes her time convincing others just how wonderfully important insects and microbes are to our lives. She enjoys playing with slime mold, ants, GPS units, climate loggers and interviewing scientists about their middle school experiences.

3 Comments

  1. andrew ladkin October 11, 2014 at 7:59 am - Reply

    My son stumbled across the article and asked me if I was the other half of the photo, but my claim to fame was the ‘best friend’ “Stand up, Bujak. Stand up, Ladkin….”

    I will always remember John and our friendship and holidays (Poland ’65 and Rimini ’66) good to see he’s done so well. Las time I remember seeing him about 1980, one of his visits back home from Canada, night out, a bit pickled and both of us got a “verbal” from my new wife and the rest.

  2. Jonathan October 11, 2014 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    We had some great times, didn’t we Andy. Everything seemed so easy in those days – just get on a train and go to Poland for six weeks with our guitars and £25 in our pockets. Well – I think it’s time we got together again and spend some time reminiscing – the Blue Room is still there in Blackpool and so is the Cricket Club.
    Do you remember when we went down to Chelsea together for our interviews at the College? We both really wanted to go there and we were in Rimini when we got our A level results. 10% in Chemistry changed my life and 10% in maths changed yours!
    See you soon pal,
    Jonathan
    p.s. the other half of the photo is another Andy – Andy McVety who was with us at Arnold.

  3. I inherited about 40 guns from my father, they sit in the I have cherished memories of all of them, and couldn’t part with them despite that not really being a part of my life Once I settle, they will have a nice room all to their own in the basement, along with the hunting trophies and a high back leather It will be my whiskey drinking

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