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Out of the Academy and into the Aquarium

William Spitzer and Michael Connor both graduated from the MIT/WHOI Joint Program with no intentions of ever working in a laboratory or ivory tower.

For the two, science has always been a means to another end. Connor’s formative college years at Stanford coincided with the first Earth Day and passage of the Clean Water Act, and he often brought his organic chemistry textbook to sit-ins protesting the Vietnam War. For him, science held the key to making smarter public policy decisions with greater benefits to society.

For Spitzer, science unlocked another door. It could tickle people’s natural curiosity and unleash a flood of questions about their world. Then it could teach them how to get the answers. In short, it could educate and empower.

So it’s not entirely coincidental that today the two men find themselves in leadership positions at the New England Aquarium in Boston, with its mission to “protect, promote, and present the world of water.” As director of education, Spitzer shapes the aquarium’s ever-growing educational program, the largest of its kind, to teach visitors about oceans, rivers, and ponds and to use these as learning resources. As vice president of programs and exhibits, Connor steers a very public agenda to explain threats to the ocean, to take part in fishery management debates, and to conduct research to conserve coral reefs and marine diversity.

For Connor, the direction, if not the destination, was always clear. As an undergraduate, he took a year off to work at a small rural school in South Korea, where he got a firsthand look at Asia’s pollution problems. He came to Woods Hole partly because of an interest in a nearby institute that was exploring alternative energy and aquaculture.

At WHOI he took an active role in graduate student seminars convened by his advisor, Senior Scientist Emeritus John Teal, which explored ways to apply science to practical problems. “Teal was really unique in that he encouraged us to seek the policy side of everything we did,” Connor said. One seminar concerned research on Georges Bank, 70 miles east of Cape Cod. He and his fellows, who came to be known as “the students in fishermen’s sweaters,” became active participants in the public debate, in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo, on a controversial proposed moratorium on oil drilling there. Another seminar examined the environmental degradation caused by the dumping of 50 dry tons of raw sewage into Boston Harbor every day.

After graduating from the Joint Program in 1980 with a degree in biological oceanography, Connor took a post–doctoral position in environmental policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. The 1972 Clean Water Act had made sewage disposal a contentious issue for coastal communities, and he analyzed various options for wastewater and sludge, which included burning it, dumping it into the ocean, or recycling it into fertilizer. He worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, analyzing ways to manage estuary systems such as Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay, and Buzzards Bay. Then he did similar work on estuaries around the country as a consultant for Batelle Ocean Sciences in Duxbury, Massachusetts. At Batelle, he made his first (unsuccessful) attempt to persuade the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) —the agency that controlled discharge into Boston Harbor—that scientific studies could help find the most effective methods to solve its dumping problem.

Then in a twist of fate, the New England Aquarium, Connor’s current employer, hosted a conference on harbor pollution in 1987. Judy McDowell, a WHOI biological oceanographer and now the Joint Program’s Associate Dean, was scheduled to give a talk, but was snowed in. At the last minute, Connor, who had come to the conference just to listen, was asked to fill in. An MWRA staff member in the audience was impressed by Connor’s improvised talk on the effects of dumping on the Massachusetts Bay ecosystem.
“She said, ‘This guy is really understandable. He can communicate science in a way that the public can understand,’” Connor related. She recommended Connor to head the MWRA’s Environmental Quality Department.

“The MWRA was an agency of sewer engineers,” he said. “I was the first scientist. When I arrived, I met the attitude of ‘We don’t need science, we need answers.’ However, we essentially got together with scientists and policymakers and helped turn the science into answers.”

By the end of his 10-year MWRA stint, Connor had transformed his one-man mission into a $7.5-million effort involving 75 staffers and a new laboratory facility on Deer Island. He launched new research that provided a rational basis for analyzing the risks and benefits of a plan to build an outfall system that would circumvent the harbor and release wastewater miles off the coast. He established protocols to test and monitor the system. To an often confused and angry public, Connor explained the scientific thinking and evidence behind the plan, the knowns and unknowns, the possibilities and contingencies. Today, the system he played a big role in installing has halved sewage output into the harbor and reduced bacterial contamination to a 50-year low.

Looking out at the now-cleaner Boston Harbor from his office window at the aquarium, Spitzer said he knew in graduate school that the chemistry between people excited him even more than the chemistry between molecules.

“I really wanted to have the experience of doing research, but not necessarily my whole life,” he said. “I needed something that was more directly service- and people-oriented.”

At WHOI, Spitzer immersed himself in Woods Hole’s vibrant scientific community, attending seminars on cutting-edge discoveries in marine science or discussing experimental design with colleagues. “People were always talking about their work and I learned not to be afraid to ask hard questions and to be asked hard questions,” he said.

Answering those questions, he learned, usually involved overcoming obstacles, thinking things through carefully, applying new knowledge in innovative ways, and learning some hands-on skills. While completing his dissertation research in chemical oceanography on oceanic gas cycles, he was confronted with the dilemma of constructing experiments that wouldn’t fall apart on the high seas or be ruined during power outages. “If it meant learning plumbing or how to solder, that’s what you did,” Spitzer said.

The ingenuity of his advisor, former WHOI Senior Scientist Bill Jenkins, provided plenty of inspiration. “He would go home over the weekend and read some book about a whole new field and then come back the next week and start using it. I was empowered just to know that you could do that.

“In some ways the most valuable thing I learned at Woods Hole was the importance of being thoughtful, skeptical, rigorous, and logical about things and, most important, just being curious,” he said. “It’s really independent of the particular subject matter—it’s a way of thinking.”

Spitzer found that “way of thinking” served him well in his first position after graduating in 1989: directing research in science education at the Technical Education Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He said he often drew upon the research skills he had learned as he developed new ways to teach children about air pollution or biodiversity. Instilling in students and teachers an understanding of experimental design—how to build a hypothesis through exploration, then collect data to test it—became his ultimate goal as an educator.

Since 1996, Spitzer has had a hand in every educational function of the aquarium, from writing exhibit text to answering visitors’ questions. He has led the education department to implement ambitious outreach and education programs. These range from the largest skill and leadership development programs for teenagers in the Boston area to teacher workshops, Elderhostel programs, “Beach Teach” for preschoolers, and Science League, a pilot project modeled after youth athletic leagues. The aquatic world can help teach anything, Spitzer argues, from basic literacy skills at lower grades to advanced high school science.
 
For both Spitzer and Connor, the New England Aquarium offers a stage for scientists to debut their research and spotlight environmental concerns to an audience of 1.4 million visitors annually. Neither has forgotten his MIT/WHOI roots. Spitzer has collaborated with WHOI alumnus Richard Signell and WHOI biologist Larry Madin, respectively, on exhibits about Georges Bank and ocean jellies, and with WHOI biologist Peter Tyack and MIT professors Art Baggeroer and Henrik Schmidt on a “Sounds of the Sea” exhibit.

And in late 1999, as the Canadian government was deciding whether to extend its moratorium on Georges Bank oil drilling, Connor revisited an early environmental concern, co-chairing a report by WHOI and aquarium scientists on offshore drilling on the bank.

—Rebecca Pollard

Originally published: March 1, 2000