University of Michigan Professor Joel Blum researches ground-breaking mercury measurements

by Erin Figley

University of Michigan Journalist

Ever since University of Michigan Professor Joel Blum, 53, saw the mountains for the first time during a family vacation in the West when he was 10 years old, he was interested in learning about how the world works. His education certainly allowed him to do so, and his career allows him to do so much more.


Blum received the Geochemical Society’s Patterson Award in Feb. 2013 for developing a measurement tool through which his team could effectively find the variations in isotopic measurements of mercury with great precisions. The Geochemical Society awards one recipient the Patterson Award annually for a groundbreaking research in environmental geochemistry. Many scientists in the geochemical field initially doubted that Blum’s team could create this tool.

“We had been told many, many, many, times that it was impossible,” Blum said.

No other researchers in the field of geochemical science have created a tool for mercury like the one that Blum did.

“The best thing about working with Joel is [that] I get to work with [someone] who is so passionate about the field and so renowned for his work,” Undergraduate Research Assistant Kaitlin Ma said.

Blum’s techniques have been used to find “fingerprints” of mercury in the environment for the first time ever. These mercury “fingerprints” point researchers to exact sources of pollution linked to mercury exposure in living organisms. Recently, Blum has paired with researchers at the University of Hawaii to study the levels of mercury in Pacific fish. The concentration of mercury in human-consumed fish can have catastrophic ramifications for public health. According to the EPA, humans in the United States are mainly exposed to mercury when they eat fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury. High levels of methylmercury can contribute to impaired neurological development resulting in negative effects on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills.

Post-Doctoral Fellow Laura Sherman said that, though Blum’s measurement tool results in findings at a microscopic level, Blum is always concerned with how his work can impact the environment on a larger scale.

“He’s really good at looking at the big picture with our research,” Sherman said. “In grad school sometimes you tend to get stuck in the details. You get tunnel vision and he’s really good at making you step back and look at a bigger picture.”

Blum did not always aspire to become a scientist. He chuckles as he tells how his interests have changed over the years, looking up and to the right as he tries to recall his aspirations in his twenties. As an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, Blum was initially pursuing a Political Science major. After taking an environmental studies class and going on field trips, he was inspired to double major with a Geology degree.

“The reason I got interested in earth and environmental sciences was going out in the field and learning how the world works out in the field,” Blum said. “My desire to be out in the mountains is what drove my career choice.”

After graduating, Blum moved to Alaska to mountain climb. While in Alaska, Blum studied to get his Masters of Science at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. He said that the annual Wolverine vs. Nanook (the University of Alaska mascot) hockey game always excites him.

“I’m usually the only Nanook fan,” Blum said, laughing.

Blum is married and has a daughter in her twenties who is currently studying Environmental Law at the University of Michigan Law School. An outdoor enthusiast, Blum often shares stories about hiking, climbing, and other adventures.

“He’s not the kind of person who only wants to hear about what you did in lab,” Sherman said. “He’s more of the kind of person who wants to tell you, ‘Oh I went sailing last weekend’ or ‘I went hiking in this beautiful place.’”

Each summer, Blum has the pleasure to take his teaching to the West. Blum teaches Earth 341: Ecosystem Science in the Rockies annually at the University of Michigan Camp Davis Rocky Mountain Field Station in Jackson Hole, WY. Blum made it a personal mission to increase the courses and opportunities available at Camp Davis so students can see the value in experiencing stunning geological landmarks on-site, like he first did in his preteen years.

“I think it’s overall a good educational experience,” Blum said. “I always found that getting students in the field is how you get them engaged. It’s how the students see how the world works.”


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