A very special convergence took place at the American Geophysical Union Conference last December in San Francisco, attended by the two women who lead the nation’s two top oceanographic research institutions: Both hold degrees from the University of Illinois.
Susan Avery, MS ’74 ENG, PHD ’78 LAS, has served as president and director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution since 2007. In 2013Margaret Leinen ’69 LAS was named director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, where she is vice chancellor for marine sciences and dean of the School of Marine Science. (She is, moreover, the newly inducted president of AGU.)
The two women met for an interview on Dec. 9, with Kathleen Wong, a Bay Area science writer, who talked with them on subjects ranging from technology and climate change to studying at the U of I and oceanography’s prime directive.
Q: Each of you has assumed leadership of a top oceanographic research institution. Yet you both graduated from Illinois, which has no program in oceanography and is thousands of miles from the nearest ocean. Does this seem incongruous to you?
Susan Avery: Not really. I started off in physics and went into atmospheric science. Both of those are associated with knowing about the planet and its natural systems. When I started graduate school at Illinois, the atmospheric physics program was just blossoming. My Ph.D. in atmospheric science was the first to be awarded by the University. It was an exciting time. There were a lot of young faculty members and a lot of energy, leading to one-on-one conversations.
Margaret Leinen: I went to Illinois to go into biochemistry. My year was the first year of the baby boom, so everything was just crammed. I never met any of the faculty; it was always teaching assistants dealing with the students in my classes. I got out and went into microbiology, which I thought was really protozoology, but then I found out it was [about] bacteria. I made my way through immunology, meteorology, geography. Wound up in geology. In the past I have been asked to give talks for Parents’ Weekend [at UCSD]. I say, “It’s all right if your kids look around while they’re in college. They can still get a job later on.”
Q: Please describe your work for your respective institutions.
ML: One of the wonderful things about being at Scripps and working with people there is the fact that it covers all of ocean, Earth, atmospheric and space science. That means we’re unfettered. Any big problem in geoscience that’s out there is an opportunity for our researchers. That’s a really exciting aspect of both Woods Hole and Scripps. Their potential is enormous. It is a real privilege to know that Susan is at Woods Hole and that these two institutions can communicate and work together. A lot of that is because I trust her and I know her.
SA: It goes vice versa, because our two institutions work so closely together. Yes, we compete, but we collaborate much more. I find WHOI intellectually to be very exciting and stimulating. It’s also comprehensive. We have physical, chemical, biological and geological scientists. We have engineers developing new tools. I was drawn here in part by the tremendous synergy between the engineering and science—the ability to develop new tools, to get into a very unknown part of our planet and to do science that is inherently interdisciplinary.
ML: Both of us are asked a lot to write on behalf of the field—white papers, participating in studies for the National Academy of Sciences and so forth. We are called to focus on the future of ocean science and geoscience, the big issues that are out there, including the issue of how the science is changing. Our young scientists are doing their work together on Facebook and using Google Docs. Their shared work is breaking down a lot of boundaries.
SA: It’s about synthesizing. It’s about telling the story in new ways that have meaning to nonscientists and being able to excite people and get them to think about what we’re doing. Margaret’s right—there’s a lot of connecting the dots. Because it’s all Earth’s system.
Q: What are one or two exceptionally interesting projects at your institutions?
SA: Research into harmful algal blooms—which produce toxins capable of killing fish, mammals and birds—by WHOI senior scientists Dennis McGillicuddy, Don Anderson and colleagues has progressed over 40 years from a fundamental level of science inquiry to an application with social and economic consequences. They designed biophysical models of how these cysts grow, get transported and create harmful blooms in the Gulf of Maine. This work then enabled them to forecast when these blooms come and which would be toxic. Thanks to their efforts, a shellfish fishery that hadn’t been harvested in nearly 25 years along Georges Bank, off the coast of Massachusetts, has reopened.
ML: A great example for Scripps is the work of Veerabhadran Ramanathan [a UCSD professor of atmospheric and climate sciences]. He grew up in very modest circumstances in India and knows that a lot of the pollution there is from inefficient diesel and from coal- and wood-burning stoves. He studied black carbon particulates in the atmosphere in Asia and the impact they have on climate and the reflection of sunlight back into space. His research puts that together with the fact that if we clean those up, we clean up the health effects from indoor pollution and smog and decrease greenhouse warming.
Q: How is the ongoing turmoil on Capitol Hill affecting your institutions?
ML: Gridlock means Congress has difficulty passing a budget and has had little opportunity to establish new priorities. Many agencies are working with the existing priorities, though the field is changing rapidly. The most potent risk to our coastal communities is from ocean acidification, sea-level rise and storm surge, water-quality issues, decline of fisheries. It’s all happening in the ocean, it’s all part of the economy, and it’s huge. The entire coastal zone is all being affected by our lack of being able to deal with both the direct problems like water quality and the indirect problems like risk.
SA: At WHOI the declining federal investment in scientific research is a real problem for us. We are an independent, not-for-profit organization. We’re not connected with a university. Federal investment in research and development is at its lowest point since 2002. The past decade has seen the emergence of new technologies and observing infrastructure—biosensors, bioimaging, informatics, ocean acidification sciences, observing networks, new robotics—which are all poised to enable new discoveries. But it’s a Catch-22. With decreasing science agency budgets, the operations funding for the new observing systems comes at the expense of funding for the science that would use them. Not to be able to fund this science is discouraging. Sequestration could also lose us a generation of early-career scientists. Even if the funding comes back, they’ve already moved on to other careers. They’re not coming back.
ML: The ocean is the greatest treasure trove on the planet: cures for disease, new algae for biofuels, new resources, offshore energy. We’re leaving all that potential wealth on the table, and we’re exposing the economy to all that risk. It’s just unfathomable to me.
Q: What’s a problem in the global environment that you regard as solvable? What are the chances it will be solved?
SA: There are three big problems associated with the ocean: pollution, overfishing and climate change. All of them have solvable dimensions. The greatest obstacles I see are lack of knowledge and lack of public awareness. Most people stand on a beach and look at the ocean, and they say, “Oh, not much has changed.” But it’s changing underneath.
ML: Pollution—whether nutrient pollution, endocrine disruptors like persistent organic pesticides or other pollutants—is something we have the ability to solve. We don’t have to put all of those contaminants into our waterways. Identifying what’s there, how it’s getting there, how much is fouling the water—all of this points to policy or infrastructural solutions. For example, the idea of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patches” is easy to grasp because dead birds with stomachs full of plastic make great images. It’s harder to convey that there are persistent organic pesticides in the water, they’re getting into the fish we’re eating, and they’re affecting our endocrine systems.
Q: Give us a global environmental problem that you regard as unsolvable.
SA: Climate change is the elephant in the room. Look at the implications of species migrating at different times, of snowmelt coming at different times in the season, of ocean acidification and its impacts on shellfish and coral reef systems. It’s far more than a temperature record. My greatest worry is that people don’t understand the impact of climate change on limited resources.
ML: To me, the question means something not solvable in my lifetime or my son’s. I would say that sustainable fisheries is one. When I first moved to Rhode Island [in the mid-’70s], you never bought a whole fillet of cod because it was 2 feet long and 3 inches thick. Now a codfish fillet is maybe 8-12 inches [in length]. On Georges Bank, one of the great fisheries of the world, cod, haddock and flounder have been replaced by skate, rays and jellyfish—species we don’t want to eat. That fishery is not going to come back in my family’s generation.
Q: What do you regard as the prime directive of oceanographic science today?
SA: It’s to know the ocean. To know its biological, chemical and geological functioning as a system; how it interfaces with the atmosphere, with the land, the seafloor and ice; how it’s impacted by humanity. We have laid the groundwork of understanding much about the many parts of the ocean. Now we can start putting the whole story together to solve problems.
ML: I say dream big, dare to explore, find solutions.