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Letter from Laurence P. Madin, Director of Research

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A culture flask containing marine microorganisms could be the source of new treatments for cystic fibrosis, thanks to work recently begun by WHOI microbiologist Tracy Mincer and the Flatley Discovery Lab in Charlestown, Mass.

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A culture flask containing marine microorganisms could be the source of new treatments for cystic fibrosis, thanks to work recently begun by WHOI microbiologist Tracy Mincer and the Flatley Discovery Lab in Charlestown, Mass. To look for chemicals with pharmaceutical potential, a small pouch filled with resin beads is placed in the flask. The pouch works like a teabag in reverse: Instead of sending molecules into the water, the beads soak up compounds made by the microbes. The compounds are then removed from the beads and analyzed. The broth takes on the color of natural pigments made by the microbes, which in this flask were photosynthetic. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)


WHOI's Hovey Clifford (center) showed Melissa Simpson and Oniika Davis Peters from BP how to use a Niskin bottle to take water samples beneath the ocean surface recently.

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WHOI's Hovey Clifford (center) showed Melissa Simpson and Oniika Davis Peters from BP how to use a Niskin bottle to take water samples beneath the ocean surface recently. In September, 20 BP employees from around the world involved in environment, safety, and operational risk operations came to WHOI for 12 days for an intensive short course on ocean science. The course was designed to expose members of the oil and gas industry to major themes in oceanographic research with a focus on marine ecosystems and to provide greater appreciation for the environment in which BP's offshore operations are conducted. The course included lectures, seminars, and tours plus a hands-on day of fieldwork on the R/V Tioga in Buzzards Bay. (Photo by Katherine Spencer Joyce, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)


2011 Research Funding

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2011 Research Funding


If you ask WHOI staff about their work, you might get a range of answers, but most would describe what we do here as basic research in ocean science – investigating how the ocean functions from the perspective of its physics, chemistry, geology and biology, or as we might think of it today, its ‘physicomicrobiogeochemistry’. They are motivated by a desire to understand fundamental mechanisms and use that knowledge for broader understanding of the Earth and its diverse inhabitants. However, we also conduct much more applied research and engineering, whether for an immediate societal problem or a client with particular needs. Recent examples include our deep-sea search and survey work for the Air France crash and the Titanic wreck site, our contract to look for biomolecules effective against cystic fibrosis, and our continuing work on the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill.

While answering immediate needs, this kind of research also contributes significantly to our basic knowledge. It may open new opportunities, support additional facilities and people, or help develop new methods or operational experience. Viewing the range of activity at WHOI in recent years it’s apparent that our work fits at many places along a spectrum from pure, curiosity-driven science  to contractual jobs for clients at the other. The flexibility of our funding structure means that individual scientists, students, engineers and technicians can work at  many points on this spectrum according to their interests, the problem at hand, and the funding available. Often the difference between basic and applied research is only the distance in space and time between a discovery and its useful application somewhere.

In its 8 decades WHOI has moved back and forth on this research spectrum, from academic studies of plankton and fish in early years to intensive focus on military needs during WW II, to the postwar advent of federally funded research from NSF. Whatever initiates the work, we are good at asking questions, researching answers, and then building and applying solutions. This versatility puts us in a strong position to broaden and strengthen our funding beyond traditional government sources.  At a retreat in early 2011 WHOI leadership explored ways we might foster this, and since then we have made progress in diversifying our portfolio both in the government sector and the newer territory of technology transfer and industrial partnerships.

There is both promise and risk in this new territory. The private sector can offer opportunities and money, but may have different values and motivations, including their view of academic freedom and intellectual property.  In fact, we saw both aspects in our relationship with BP during 2011. In September we gave a very well-received course in marine science for 20 BP technical experts from around the world, and in December we were served a subpoena by BP demanding all our data and deliberations for some of the work our staff did during the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

So we need to explore new opportunities and partners carefully, never forgetting our fundamental values of free academic inquiry, but not being afraid to see where else our knowledge and skills can take us. There is much that ocean science and engineering at WHOI can contribute to the well-being of society, sometimes right away, sometimes years from now.  The right mixture of government, philanthropic and industry support could let us do that while stabilizing our funding base and strengthening the culture of independent and creative research that have made WHOI a world leader for the last, and the next, 80 years. 



Last updated: July 6, 2012
 


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