Susan K. Avery, PhD

Sea Stories: Presentation to the WHOI Board of Trustees

By Susan K. Avery
May 20, 2015


Every WHOI scientist and engineer and mariner can tell you sea stories. They pursue a mission to bring back new knowledge. They go out into the unknown. They make their plans, assemble their assets and tools—and then the sea state changes, and something that worked before, now does not.  So they roll with the unexpected waves. They stumble over and then overcome obstacles. They adapt to the situation.

For WHOI scientists, engineers, and mariners, anticipating the unpredictable is business as usual.  They find new ways to handle whatever arises, often experimenting and taking risks. But they always hold firm to the fundamental science mission.

That outlook, and that experience, mirrors my own during seven and half years at the helm of this ship called WHOI.

Here are a few of my sea stories to illustrate what I mean.

Story 1:  Deepwater Horizon, 2010

An unexpected, urgent, fast-moving, massive, complex problem, something that no one had ever dealt with before, certainly pushed WHOI outside its normal business as usual. But we gathered scientists together in an emergency meeting to quickly review the collective capabilities we could apply to this unanticipated situation.

We identified several critical things. First, WHOI was “pre-adapted” to respond to the spill. “Preadaptation” is an evolutionary biology term. It refers to turning an existing biological structure to a novel use when the right conditions develop. In an analogous manner, WHOI’s culture of scientific inquiry gave us expertise and experience that was applicable to the oil spill response. Here was a new use for our existing scientific and technical capabilities.

Second, WHOI expertise spanned a breadth of scientific and engineering disciplines essential to understanding the spill: fluid dynamics, oil chemistry, microbiology, deep-sea biology, and deep-sea technology. And we already had advanced deep-sea technological assets at the ready.

Third, WHOI was nimble and could move into the field rapidly with ships, gliders, sediment traps; with Alvin, Jason, and Sentry; with an Isobaric Gas-tight Sampler—all originally designed to study hydrothermal vents, but also perfectly pre-adapted to study deep water oil spills. 

Liz Kujawinski had been using a Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer to detect and measure vanishingly small amounts of carbon in the ocean. But she found it was also the perfect tool for detecting the dispersant used in the cleanup. Cabell Davis had developed a tool called a HoloPod to detect microscopic plankton floating in the ocean. It also proved an excellent instrument to detect minute oil droplets moving in the ocean. In these and other ways, WHOI scientists were able to contribute critical interdisciplinary observations and knowledge to this societal problem. 

Today they continue to contribute new knowledge about the spill and its aftereffects. They continue their research, and they are publishing papers to share their knowledge with everyone. WHOI has spearheaded new lines of scientific inquiry that will be useful in the future oil spills, not only in the Gulf of Mexico, but in locations around the world, including the Arctic.

WHOI has also demonstrated leadership in other ways.  In late April, WHOI chemist Chris Reddy testified before a Senate Committee. He called for a comprehensive, unbiased analysis on the costs and benefits of using dispersants in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a multi-disciplinary analysis that would examine a spectrum of environmental, health, and economic factors. 

In mid-May, Chris was on National Public Radio, urging the idea in the public debate, especially in light of the decision to allow drilling in the Arctic. Chris has been heard, and the ideas are gaining momentum. He was invited to a meeting in June at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, which would be the most appropriate mechanism for accomplishing this study. Proponents on all sides of the debate—from environmentalists to industry—can argue forever. We want to provide the science to make  informed decisions.

We’ve also demonstrated leadership in another way. Chris is participating in the SPERR project:

"Science Partnerships Enabling Rapid Response." Its goal is to understand the obstacles to effective collaborations between academic scientists and government responders, barriers to action that emerged during the response to Deepwater Horizon. The project is designing a solution to bridge the cultural divide and build trust across those communities. The proposed solution is called the Science Action Network, a collection of academic and professional scientists, linked to regional government planning and response bodies to coordinate and streamline scientific input for decision-making.

Deepwater Horizon was a learning experience, a confidence builder. It reinforced how valuable oceanographic technology is to society. So WHOI has redoubled that commitment. It created the Center for Marine Robotics to accelerate advances in technology, improve efficiency, lower costs, reduce the risks of marine operations, and tackle problems in new ways. It provides yet another model for conducting research at WHOI and serving scientists, industry, and the Navy. 

The Deepwater Horizon story highlights many aspects of what we’ve been doing increasingly in recent years.  We are using WHOI’s solid foundation of cutting-edge research, our breadth of expertise in many fields, and our engineering prowess and assets to help answer societally relevant questions about the global ocean.  Deepwater Horizon showcased our ability to coordinate and facilitate cooperation among science, engineering, operations, and management support. 

Also, as we do at sea, we are continually adapting in order to maintain and grow those capabilities, whether it be during difficult financial times—such as the crisis in 2008 and the years following—or whether it be from political tugs of war that threaten federal funding. We are developing decision-making processes and experimenting with other structural changes to adapt to change as it inevitably occurs. And we will continue to use our “pre-adapted” capabilities to answer such societal challenges as the loss of Air France 447 in the deep ocean, the sudden release into Japanese coastal waters of radioactive material from the Fukushima meltdown, and new opportunities in algal biofuels, ocean informatics, and pharmaceutical applications of marine organisms.

Story 2:  Alvin/OOI

I arrived at WHOI just in time for two major projects: the design and construction of the Alvin replacement vehicle, and the Ocean Observatories Initiative, or OOI.  Both projects had successful outcomes, but not before overcoming multiple challenges. 

At that time, cost estimates from an outside contractor for the Alvin project were escalating without bound to a point where the sub was unaffordable with the funding from NSF. This led us to decide on a two-phase approach: install a new personnel sphere capable of eventually taking scientists to a depth of 6500 meters, even though the vehicle would continue to be restricted to a depth of 4500 meters until funding became available for the remaining full-depth upgrades needed to power the vehicle.

We brought all project management, design, and construction in-house, something we were not structured to do. We committed to a large cost-share to bolster initial NSF funding, which we raised by generous Board members. The final unanticipated challenge was a change of mind (or leadership) at NAVSEA, the ultimate certifying authority for the vehicle. We were suddenly faced with long delays and cost overruns caused by numerous changes in the certification requirements and schedule.

In each case, WHOI had to adapt, and we did. We built what is essentially a new sub within budget, which this year received NAVSEA certification to conduct research at a depth of 4,500 meters. We will continue to pursue vigorously the necessary federal funding to bring a 6,500-meter vehicle to the U.S. research fleet.

In the case of OOI, WHOI decided in the two years before my arrival to pursue the contract for one of NSF’s largest infrastructure projects ever. It was identified in the WHOI strategic planning process as a key funding source and as an important element in securing WHOI’s future and stature in the ocean sciences community.  Six months before my arrival, WHOI won the bidding competition for the design, development, installation, and initial operation of the coastal and global scale nodes of the OOI. It was a $97.7 million contract to lead an academic partnership with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Oregon State University, and Raytheon. 

WHOI had never before attempted anything on this scale. We had to learn—we had to adapt—to working on a contractual basis with a complex schedule of milestones and deliverables that would trigger a series of funding tranches. We faced an unpredictably truncated start-up timeline—shortened by a full year—because of the infusion of stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).  Suddenly, the learning curve became a breathtakingly steep climb: Complete the entire design of all mooring and sensor systems in time for a final design review in November 2008; complete all budget estimates and implementation timelines before the cost and schedule review in March 2009; and start construction by September 2009.

These challenges were painful at times. We had to completely retool our procurement process; quickly develop large project management skills with assistance from Raytheon; and rescope the entire project by scaling back the coastal scale nodes and by enhancing the global nodes. In terms of external relations, we experienced hard pushback from the fishing community on the perceived deleterious effects of the Pioneer coastal array in the Gulf of Maine, and we worked hard with the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation to build bridges with the fishing industry.

Once again, WHOI rose to the challenge. In January 2010, we pursued and achieved a grant of $8.1 million in ARRA funds from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to build the Laboratory for Ocean Sensors and Observing Systems to house our entire OOI program.  We successfully deployed the Pioneer array moorings in September 2011 and deployed the first global site, off Alaska, in August 2013. We had additional Pioneer array deployments in the fall of 2014, and we completed deployment of the final global array, in the Southern Ocean, in March this year. Our success has reinforced our reputation as a leader determined to succeed.

Story 3:  Decision support tools and processes (metrics, talent, analysis, decision)

When our new CFO, Jeffrey Fernandez, came aboard three years ago, both he and I wanted to review the potential impact of switching from an accounting model that determined overhead rates based solely on labor costs to a modified total direct cost (MTDC) model, which determines overhead by including all costs, including materials, equipment and subcontracts. MTDC would make our grant proposals appear far more competitive and in line with peer organizations. When we began discussions with the scientific staff, we quickly learned that the majority had been advocating for a move to MTDC for many years.

Jeffrey assembled a team with modeling skills, WHOI-specific knowledge, and experience in the intricacies of federal cost accounting regulations. The team developed a cost impact model with participation from across all departments of WHOI. After implementation of MTDC in 2017, WHOI will be using the same system as all of its competitors, and will be more transparent.

Over the past several years, there have been many other administrative efforts like this, focusing on developing metrics, fostering talent, and improving analysis for decision support. We’ve accomplished this by carefully building our directorate team, from fund-raising to marine operations to finance to legal. We also made key hires to lead our burgeoning effort in commercializing WHOI’s intellectual property and to lead our effort to consolidate and improve support to science in information technology.

Story 4:  Dalio Vignette

Every now and then, our excellent reputation is reinforced in an unpredictable way. Recall that WHOI found the Air France wreckage in mountainous deep ocean terrain by using the REMUS 6000 autonomous vehicle operated from a chartered research vessel named Alucia. Also recall that when Airbus vice president Michel Guerard responded to a New York Times question about why Airbus chose WHOI to conduct the search, he said, “Because no one else in the world could do it.”  Finding that plane was a remarkable scientific and technological achievement. Also remarkable is the impact that that accomplishment and that comment has had on WHOI since.

Around the time of that New York Times article, WHOI corporation member Paul Keeler arranged a call between Dick Pittenger and Rob Munier and the new owner of Alucia, Ray Dalio. Ray had just bought the ship, knew about our Air France accomplishment, had heard from Paul about our expert ship operations, and was interested in learning from us about research vessel operations. Three weeks after that first call, Ray made his first donation to WHOI of $1 million. It is now four years later and the financial impact of Guerard’s comment and Paul’s introduction is more than $30 million.

Let me summarize some of the highlights of the relationship that has developed with Ray:

  • 22 grants for science and engineering valued at more than $9 million, including the establishment of the Dalio Explore Fund with an initial grant of $5 million
  • 12 WHOI charters of the Alucia involving more than 50 WHOI scientists and engineers
  • WHOI marine operations services valued at over $10 million and generating unrestricted income of over $1 million
  • WHOI management of Alucia and now a second ship owned by Ray, Umbra, through four shipyard periods, three Pacific crossings and 37 missions in 20 countries
  • Purchase by Ray of the REMUS 6000 and the Video Plankton Recorder (VPR) for research purposes.

WHOI’s relationship with Ray is unlike any we’ve had before with a private philanthropist. This new kind of relationship is both dynamic and challenging, and once again we’ve learned and adapted—how to better align objectives and decision-making processes with a man who is passionately dedicated to contributing to our knowledge about the ocean. The results have proven the value of the effort by both parties:

  • paleoclimate studies across the tropical Pacific
  • investigations of coral environments in Palau showing resistance to ocean acidification
  • improved understanding of the impacts of Hurricane Sandy in the context of the last two millennia
  • unprecedented use of drones to study sperm whales in New Zealand that has led to significant advances in the technology for other species and in other places
  • towing the VPR across the Pacific, a record-setting mission and data set
  • discovery of an extraordinary concentration of crabs on a seamount off Panama
  • development of a new class of hybrid tethered ROV
  • first use of optical communications to provide video from a human occupied submersible to shore in real time.

There have been other numerous benefits to this new kind of relationship. It has provided a major source of new revenue, helping offset some of the decline in our traditional federal funding sources. It has established a new model for the funding of science, embraced by the scientific community, even if with the usual healthy skepticism. It has reinforced our commitment to providing the best access to the sea, now through new ships and underwater vehicles. It has challenged us to think creatively about how to fund, manage, and perform research. It has taught us how to collaborate with private individuals at the mission/operational level—each such individual is different, but we now have the confidence to craft a successful collaboration that meets the needs of both WHOI and the donor. And it has reminded us of the value of the Institution’s reputation.

The relationship continues to evolve. We are exploring with Ray and his team a new legal construct for the operation of Alucia under a long-term lease. While the concept is very challenging because of our nonprofit status, and thus being carefully vetted by both sides, it potentially represents a sustainable vessel operational model, which would be part of an even greater commitment to WHOI by Ray based on his own long-term vision.

Ray continues to provide support to WHOI science and engineering.  Early in May we received his commitment letter for another $2.5 million grant to the Dalio Explore Fund. When we receive the funds in-house, we’ll have an institution-wide call for proposals shortly thereafter. All “because no one else in the world could do it.”

We continue to pursue and experiment with other creative funding models. We’ve started a crowdfunding trial; the scientific staff has established an endowed fund to support both scientists and engineers; we’re pursuing educational television programming with award-winning Litton Entertainment; we’re developing new relations with corporate foundations; we’ve been asked to be a partner in the newly launched Science Philanthropy Alliance; and we’ve conducted one Venture Science Cruise in Antarctica and will soon conduct another along the Mekong River in Vietnam.

I’ll conclude with a final story about Ice-Tethered Profilers (ITPs), although it could also be about the evolution of vehicles like the hybrid vehicle Nereus, the under-ice Nereid, autonomous gliders, or about the OSNAP program (Overturning in the Subpolar North Atlantic). In short, WHOI scientists recognize the critical importance of evaluating a changing Arctic. The questions in this region are societally relevant, and WHOI is not afraid of the enormous obstacles to working in the Arctic. Our science, engineering, and operations groups combined to invent, build, deploy, and operate ITPs, yet another remarkable WHOI technological achievement. The ITPs have been a catalyst for attracting international collaborators to further expand our Arctic research. Most recently, the Ocean University of China has become a partner and significant source of new funding for WHOI.

ITPs are another signal that we are at stage of transformation and change, not just at WHOI but in the way ocean science will be done in the future. WHOI has been building and experimenting for that future, a time when we evolve, create, lead, and participate in change. We continually experiment, reinforce, and renew our sense of confidence and maintain our valuable foundation and engine of pioneering research. We continue to overcome obstacles, whether environmental, technological, or financial. We are determined to address societal problems, and we remain the go-to organization, because “nobody else can do it.” 

And just as WHOI has continued to learn, adapt, and excel, so too has our Board, with implementation of best practices, ever more passionate engagement and commitment, and visionary leadership. WHOI is stronger than in 2008. There will always be challenges ahead, but WHOI will always be ready to meet those challenges. 

Originally published: June 30, 2015