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WHOI Waypoints: WHOI Celebrates Pioneering Woman Oceanographer with Award

Mary Wilcox Silver recalls the moment when she knew she had been accepted into the mostly male fraternity of oceanographers. She was serving as chief scientist for a cruise in the Vertical Transport and Exchange (VERTEX) program in 1981. Years before she had been the first woman to ever lead a cruise on a Scripps Institution of Oceanography vessel. “But here I was, fifteen years later, sitting on the deck with [WHOI scientist] John Farrington, talking about God knows what, and I had this incredible feeling,” said Silver. Given the opportunity to lead a “big oceanography” cruise with so many prominent researchers, “I felt like I had finally joined the oceanographic community.”

A professor of ocean sciences at the University of California in Santa Cruz, Silver was honored this spring with the first Woman Pioneer in Oceanography Award named for Mary Sears. Her Woman Pioneer predecessors were Mary Sears herself (one of WHOI’s first scientists), Betty Bunce (WHOI), Ruth Turner (Harvard University), and Marie Tharp (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory). The award recognizes women who exhibit long-term achievement and impact through both scientific excellence and mentoring.

Silver’s most notable scientific achievement is her work with “marine snow.” In the late 1970s, she showed that many planktonic organisms thought to be “free-living” actually reside on particles in dense and unique microbial communities visible to the unaided eye. Silver’s research led to a greater understanding of plankton ecology and the role “marine snow” plays in geochemical cycles. In more recent years, Silver has become a leader in studying the role of harmful algal toxins in the marine food web.

But Silver is more than just a great researcher. Nomination letters cited her unfaltering dedication to her students and peers, especially young women in the field. One nominator noted that she had “led the way for people with strong family commitments to go to sea, showing that scientists could combine challenging, field-based careers with family life.”

Originally published: October 1, 2002