Director of Research

Research Departments

Research staff at the Institution belong to one of five research departments and report to the Director of Research.
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The autonomous underwater vehicle REMUS is released in Belize during a pilot study of the effect of ocean currents on fish larvae spawned on coral reefs. Similar population studies have been done near Papua New Guinea, and scientists hope to expand their efforts using the latest technology. (Photo by Andrey Shcherbina, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering Department

The Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department (AOPE) is a unique collection of scientists, engineers, technical support personnel and students conducting research into ocean processes from the turbulent surf zone to the abyssal depths. This research encompasses air-sea interaction on local and global scales, mixing processes, sediment transport, estuarine and coastal hydrodynamics, ocean acoustics, underwater communication, internal waves, signal processing, mooring dynamics, and physical-biological processes.

AOPE engineers design a wide array of instruments, vehicles and observing systems that extend the reach of WHOI scientists and the entire oceanographic community to the furthest depth and breadth of ocean research and exploration.

AOPE is home to the world renowned manned submersible Alvin and unmanned vehicles Jason, REMUS, and NEREUS. The department also develops advanced moored and bottom-mounted observation systems for short- and long-term measurements. The Martha's Vineyard Coastal Observatory (MVCO) integrates atmospheric and oceanographic measurements into a high-bandwidth, real-time data feed to WHOI and the worldwide web, providing a continuous source of interdisciplinary data for coastal and meteorological researchers.

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At a coral reef located offshore Lee Stocking Island in the Bahamas, a sea slug feeds on a sea whip. (Photo by Kristen Whalen, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Biology Department

Oceanic biology is extraordinarily complex in the diversity of organisms that inhabit the seas, their life habits, and in how they interact with and contribute to essential global processes. Research in the Biology Department at WHOI continues to be very broad in the subjects studied and the approaches employed to identify and understand the diversity of organisms and their functions. WHOI biologists study organisms from the smallest scale (marine viruses and bacteria) to the largest (whales). At each of these levels Department members address questions from genetic make-up and biochemistry to population structure and ecology. Aspects of oceanic life are investigated using powerful techniques of molecular biology, biochemistry, cell biology, sophisticated acoustic and optical methods, and informatics applied to modeling molecular, behavioral and population structures.

WHOI biologists perform studies in local Massachusetts and coastal New England waters, and at sites around the globe (Polar Regions, Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans). Special strengths in the department continue to include the ecology and physiology of microbes, bio-optical studies of phytoplankton, advanced optical and acoustic techniques for zooplankton distribution and behavior, the ecology, behavior, development and genetic history of invertebrates, mathematical analysis and computer modeling of life history, population dynamics and physical-biological interactions, toxicological and molecular biological research on pollution effects in the sea, and acoustical, anatomical and behavioral studies of marine mammals.

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Geologist Ken Sims (left) and fellow climber Dennis Jackson prepare to descend into Masaya Volcano. By gathering gas samples from volcanoes worldwide, Sims is exploring how our planet is evolving and how volcanic gases cause climate changes that may even have led to the extinction of dinosaurs. Studying the gases also helps scientists understand when the volcano might next erupt and what effect gas emissions may have on human health. (Photo by Amy E. Nevala, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Geology & Geophysics Department

The Department of Geology and Geophysics (G&G) conducts research into the role of the oceans in past climate change, the geologic structure and tectonics of the ocean basins and their margins, and the composition and dynamics of the Earth’s mantle.  In addition to Scientific and Technical Staff members there are a number of graduate students pursuing their Ph.D. as well as Postdoctoral Scholars, Fellows and Investigators.

The Scientific and Technical staff carry out research in a wide variety of disciplines in the marine geosciences including marine geophysics (seismology, electromagnetism, magnetics and gravity), tectonics, petrology and geochemistry, paleoceanography and coastal and margins geology. The G&G Department hosts a number of state-of-the-art analytical or instrumentation facilities including the National Ocean Sciences Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility (NOSAMS), the Northeast National Ion Microprobe Facility (NENIMF), the Ice-Ocean Environmental Buoy Program (IOEB), and part of the Ocean Bottom Seismic Instrumentation Pool.

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When hot hydrothermal fluid jets from the seafloor and mixes with cold seawater, fine particles of dark metal sulfides precipitate out of solution, creating the appearance of black "smoke." (Image from IMAX film by William Reeve and Stephen Low, Stephen Low Productions)

Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry Department

Chemical reactions play a central role in Earth processes, from the photosynthetic fixation of carbon by plants and the cycling and availability of nutrients, to the reactions that influence the oxidation state of the atmosphere and the oceans, to the weathering of continents and formation of the Earth’s mantle and oceanic crust. Scientists and staff in the Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry (MC&G) Department seek to address major questions concerning processes that govern the chemistry of the ocean, and how ocean chemistry impacts, and is impacted by, ocean life, climate, and geology over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. Particular emphasis is placed on aspects of ocean chemistry that impinge on marine and global biogeochemical cycles, including those that are influenced by anthropogenic activity. The development and application of analytical approaches that advance our understanding of the environmental distribution of chemicals is a major strength of the Department. In addition to fundamental studies on ocean chemistry, these tools are increasingly applied as part of multifaceted, interdisciplinary research programs to examine the chemically-driven processes in the oceanic water column, at the sea floor and at the ocean’s interfaces with the atmosphere and continents. This is exemplified by the research involving analytical chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular biology that WHOI scientists in the new Biogeochemistry Laboratory are currently undertaking.

MC&G scientists also have considerable expertise in devising new ways to obtain environmental samples from difficult to access regions and under challenging conditions.Their studies take them from the local ponds and estuaries of Cape Cod to the far reaches of the planet, from the most remote corner of the Pacific Ocean to the dry valleys of the Antarctic continent, from the Greenland ice cap to the deep-sea hydrothermal systems on mid-ocean ridges. Much current work focuses on the pathways and geochemical processes at play in interactions between the continents and the oceans, the influence and sensitivity of biogeochemical processes in low nutrient regions of the oceans in relation to global climate, how ocean chemistry has evolved in the geologic past, and the complex interplay between ocean chemistry and microbial activity across the broad range of environments that the oceans host. WHOI scientists are continually developing new models to assess change, acquiring and inventing new instruments, and pioneering new methods to make ever more sensitive chemical analyses that improve our understanding of this extraordinarily complex natural system. MC&G scientists are bringing their research expertise to policy discussions and public debates on climate change and on many other issues of environmental and societal concern.

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WHOI scientist Claudia Cenedese (in dark shirt) simulates fluid flow and eddies around seamounts using a rotating table and colored dyes. Rachel Bueno de Mesquita (in pink) is a visiting researcher from the University of Rome. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Physical Oceanography Department

Physical oceanography is the exploration and study of the physics and geography of the ocean currents and water properties. Some major components of physical oceanography are the dynamics of ocean currents on scales from centimeters to global, the variability of these currents on time-scales from seconds to millennia, ocean wave phenomena, the distribution of heat and salt and their transport through the ocean basins, the exchange of momentum, heat and freshwater between the ocean and the atmosphere, and interactions between oceans and rivers, estuaries, ice and marginal seas. Physical oceanography has important applications in global climate, oceanic mixing, and coastal studies, as well as being a key element in interdisciplinary studies of primary production, hydrothermal vents, and oceanic flux and storage of carbon dioxide.

The Physical Oceanography department began as a separate entity at WHOI in 1962 with a total scientific staff of 20 and Fritz Fuglister as our first chairman. Since then, the department has grown to its highest ever population of 34 scientists at present. The scientific foci include the general circulations of the oceans, climate variability, shelf/slope dynamics, mixing, and air-sea interaction. Our department is an active participant in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program with staff giving courses and advising graduate students. Besides a population of students, we have a number of Post Doctoral Scholars/Investigators who provide an influx of new ideas and sometimes become new members of our scientific staff. The department continues to maintain leadership in ‘blue water’ oceanography and has grown to be one of the leaders in coastal oceanography as well.

While ocean observations remain one of our principal missions, we have increasingly developed modeling expertise, both analytical and numerical, to support seagoing science and to better understand fundamental ocean processes. The seagoing groups have evolved into a number of technical and scientific groups having specialized equipment.

Last updated: October 9, 2007