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The MIT/WHOI Joint Program

Having two great parents has its advantages

Our last issue of Woods Hole Currents highlighted how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution joined in an unprecedented academic marriage, creating the Joint Program for graduate studies in oceanography in 1968. Both institutions have profited from the relationship, and so have its offspring—the students.

“MIT and WHOI represent a wonderful partnership,” said MIT Chancellor Lawrence Bacow. “Our Joint Program students prosper from being able to sample from the complementary strengths and capabilities of two great institutions.”

“One of the great strengths of the Joint Program is the breadth and depth of learning, advice, and mentoring that students can get, given the combined resources of MIT and WHOI,” said John Farrington, the current WHOI Dean of Graduate Studies. “Students have access not only to traditional faculty, but they also come in contact with working scientists and a wide range of technicians who make measurements in the ocean and invent and build new instruments.”

So no matter what field students focus on (biological oceanography, chemical oceanography, marine geology and geophysics, physical oceanography, or applied ocean science and engineering), they all are exposed to the pillars of a fundamental oceanographic education, Farrington said. They learn basic theories, make observations of phenomena, and conduct experiments. Then they use those observational and experimental data to create and test new theories.

Exposure to complementary approaches provides advantages, as does exposure to complementary campuses—one with all the rich cultural opportunities of an eclectic metropolis, the other full of physical beauty and small-town charm. Both campuses attract parades of world-class scientists who engender a stimulating scientific community and keep students on the cutting edge of oceanographic research.

“There are few other oceanographic institutions where you could go to a seminar given by a leading researcher, either local or visiting, several times per week,” said Susan Henrichs ’80, now a professor at the University of Alaska.

“I often felt I was at the nexus of oceanographic research,” said William Spitzer ’89.
But perhaps the most important foundation that the institutions provide is financial: “We take responsibility for supporting our students for the full five or six years it takes to earn their degrees,” Farrington said. Several student fellowships not only lighten a considerable financial burden, they also free students from having to pursue another scientist’s already financed research. Instead, students can choose their own original thesis topics, find the right advisors, and make adjustments if necessary.

“I found the program to be extremely flexible,” said Bob Detrick, a 1978 graduate and now a WHOI scientist advising his own JP students. “It gave students a lot of responsibility and independence to pursue their research interests. The program treated students as junior scientists.” That hasn’t changed. Students today, said Associate Dean Judy McDowell, “are able to be ‘scientists in training.’”
“The Joint Program has had a major impact on my career and on WHOI,” said WHOI Director Bob Gagosian. “I was fortunate to have worked with many great students during my years as an active scientist. And now in my current position, I recognize the essential role graduate students have played in making WHOI a national treasure—a global leader in going to sea to understand how the oceans work.”

Not infrequently, student-initiated research broadens research horizons. A classic example was the discovery by Cindy Van Dover ’89 of a novel light-sensing organ on a unique species of shrimp that lives at hydrothermal vents on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. She put a special camera on the Alvin submersible and discovered the surprising phenomenon of “vent glow”—which continues to be an active target of scientific inquiry at WHOI today.

Van Dover received support beyond her fellowships from the Ocean Ventures Fund, established with private donations “to provide money for high-risk ideas by young, unproven scientists.” And there are other similar funds. Since 1986, The Frank W. Tchitcherine Student Opportunity Fund has supported students’ attendance at meetings and workshops, where they can meet and exchange ideas with colleagues from around the world. The Ditty Bag Fund, created by an anonymous gift and named after the little bag sailors once used to hold small essentials, also helps students seize unexpected opportunities to advance their work.

Support of a different type comes from the Joint Program’s faculty. “My advisors really cared about me as a student,” recalls Jamie Austin, a 1979 graduate who is now senior research scientist at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics and president of the Joint Program Alumnae/i Association. That support came right from the top.

“As a second-year graduate student in late 1975, I was in Clark waiting for the shuttle,” he related. “WHOI Director Paul Fye came by and said, ‘Jamie, would you like a ride downtown?’ In that seven- or eight-minute trip in his big blue Oldsmobile, he told me about my dissertation, my advisor, and everything else. The director knew who I was. He became an icon for me from then on—the embodiment of why it was a great place.”

Like proud parents displaying wallet-sized photos of their children, we present a few more profiles of our Joint Program graduates on the following pages.

Originally published: March 1, 2000