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Doubly Blessed

First graduate felt synergy and symbiosis of two campuses

Frank Bohlen became the MIT/WHOI Joint Program’s first official graduate much the way the two institutions came together—naturally and inevitably.

Bohlen’s family had a house on Fishers Island in Long Island Sound, and he spent a lot of time sailing, fishing, and working on and around the water. He was an inveterate tinkerer, the sort of boy who built go-carts and got a ham radio license. So not surprisingly, he majored in electrical engineering at Notre Dame and earned money during summers working as a deck hand on yachts. Bohlen returned from a two-year hitch in the Navy in 1962, a time when aeronautics firms were furiously hiring electrical engineers. “I had an interest in playing with rockets,” he said, “and I also had an offer to teach high school.”
He was pondering his options when he ran into a friend who was about to visit his brother, a WHOI technician. Bohlen went along for the ride. Amid introductions, Bohlen mentioned that he was an engineer.

“A few days later, my friend’s brother said, ‘Do you want to go to sea Tuesday?’ Well, I had just come back from two years at sea,” Bohlen said, pausing now, as he probably did then, for a just few seconds. “I said, ‘Sure. Where are we going?’”

It was a quick out-and-back to the North Atlantic on R/V Chain, but sometimes it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out you don’t really want to be a rocket scientist. “It was a confluence of things: love of the sea, the opportunity to be inventive, to do experiments….”
Bohlen signed on as a technician at WHOI. “I loved the work,” he said. “I was never happier than at sea doing experimental work.”
After a few years and several cruises, the next logical step was graduate school at MIT. But that didn’t mean leaving WHOI.

“Working at WHOI was a natural outgrowth of your research at MIT because all the ships and many advisors were at WHOI,” he said. “We didn’t recognize any barriers between the institutions.”
There were few boundaries between disciplines and approaches, too, and Bohlen found himself working with scientists who designed experiments, built instruments, and synthesized data.

“The teaching staff and the technical staff at MIT and WHOI were superb,” he said. “We were blessed to be able to work with a great diversity of people, working on different problems with different approaches, so there was a great deal of synergy and symbiosis.”

When Bohlen finished his graduate work in 1969, he was given the choice of getting his degree from MIT or from the MIT/WHOI Joint Program, which had been officially established a few months before. He made the natural choice: “I felt I was ‘joint’ physically and psychologically,” Bohlen joked, and he became the program’s first official graduate at its first commencement ceremonies in 1970. He earned his Ph.D. degree in physical oceanography, and his specialty was the transport of fine-grained sediments.
His timing was propitious. The University of Connecticut had just established its Marine Sciences Institute and Bohlen joined the faculty. Soon after, the Environmental Protection Agency was created amid heightened concerns about water quality, especially around urbanized areas such as Long Island Sound. Every time people dredged a harbor, installed an underwater gas pipe, used waterways for disposal, or fixed a bridge, they stirred up sediments and controversy. The sediments clouded waterways, threatened to suffocate shellfish beds, and resuspended contaminants, such as metals, PCBs, and dioxin, which are taken in by sediments.

“In the 1970s, 15 of the 19 historical disposal areas for dredged materials in Long Island Sound were closed,” Bohlen said. “Without dredging, you can’t get submarines up the Thames River to the US sub base in Groton or tankers into New Haven to bring oil for home heating or electrical power generation.”
Suddenly, a seemingly esoteric subject such as fine-grained sediment transport became hugely practical. Bohlen has had no shortage of work, and all facets of his WHOI training have come in handy. He has combined field and laboratory investigations, developed instruments to collect data, and used that data to create numerical models to understand the complex processes by which sediments move into and around the water column.

While continuing to teach at UConn, now as a full Professor, he has conducted basic research and studies for a range of interested parties, including the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the US Army Corps of Engineers; the Iroquois Gas Transmission Co., which laid a gas pipeline across the Sound; oil companies that dispose of fine-grained muds used to lubricate their drills; and towns concerned about their local shellfish beds and beach erosion.

“These situations create a lot of tension among environmentalists, businesses, regulatory agencies, even political bodies, resulting in decisions that often are not based on the best science,” Bohlen said. “Our job is to reconcile perceptions with reality, to find optimum strategies to prevent or remediate environmental problems.”

He is still doing all the things he has always loved: teaching, building instruments, conducting experiments, and staying close to the sea. He still sails passionately, participating in long-distance sailing races and taking transatlantic voyages. His career path has allowed him to combine business with pleasure. Not too many sailors come into Woods Hole’s Great Harbor to use the oceanographic library.

—By Laurence Lippsett

Originally published: October 1, 1999