Susan K. Avery, PhD

Presentation to the WHOI Board and Corporation

By Susan K. Avery
May 21, 2015


This meeting's science panel was prompted by an issue of Oceanography magazine, published earlier this year, which was devoted to women in oceanography. Quite simply, we wanted you to meet some of our women oceanographers, and we're grateful to the women here today who accepted our invitation.

I'll let them introduce themselves.  They'll tell you a little about their careers and their roles at the Institution, and afterward, we've set aside time for questions.

Panelists: Amy Bower, Jean Lavache, Sheri White, Hannah Barkley

After-panel remarks

Thank you Amy, Jean, Sheri, and Hannah. That was fun. And inspirational.  As I knew it would be. You'll see that there was a bit of method in putting together our science panel today. Because in the seven and half years I have been president and director of WHOI, I have been inspired by people like Amy, Jean, Sheri, and Hannah. This is my last Board and Corporation meeting as president and director of WHOI, so I'd like to take the opportunity to speak about my perspectives of WHOI.

As you know, my background is as an atmospheric scientist with a career in university settings. But after seven and a half years at WHOI, I've gotten a real sense of this place, and where it sits in the realm of oceanographic institutions, not just in the United States, but worldwide. When you get that perspective, you really realize what a special place this is. Our mission statement doesn't adequately capture the breadth and depth of the work at this institution. It is a statement that any university might write. And many people think of us as part of a university, or as a government lab. And while there are certain elements of WHOI that are like those institutions, we're different from them. In many ways, we are a distinct and distinctive entity.

I like to articulate the WHOI mission as to “know the ocean—to benefit humanity.” That means to know how the ocean works as a system, how it interacts with the land, atmosphere, seafloor, ice, and humanity, and how to work in, on and around it. We accomplish this by: 

  • conducting cutting-edge research (full spectrum of types of research)
  • developing innovative tools (platforms, sensors, information pathways, analytical methods)
  • operating safely and productively in harsh, unpredictable seas
  • informing ocean policy
  • applying knowledge and tools to pressing problems (environmental, economic, national security)
  • transitioning knowledge and tools to new economies
  • educating for the future, and
  • providing leadership

There are four pillars of WHOI that make it what it is: science, engineering, operations, and education.  

Of those four, some are in common with universities or government labs, some are not.

The first pillar is the comprehensive science capabilities. There are roughly 250 scientists here, scientists like Amy Bower. Their training forms the fundamental knowledge blocks of the ocean—physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and engineering science. They span topic areas from geophysics to fluid dynamics to bio-acoustics, biogeochemistry to proteomics, and toxicology to genetics to population dynamics. Universities may have these fundamental science departments. Some scientists within those departments ask questions about the ocean.  Some ask questions about fundamental biology using marine animals. But it would be impossible to have a comprehensive faculty of 250 in a U.S. university that would focus solely on understanding the ocean.  

When I first came to WHOI, I was fascinated to see how our departmental structure is so porous.

You have people interconnecting constantly, bumping into each other in the hallways and the pathways between buildings and at Coffee-O, brainstorming ideas, and collaborating. That fosters an interdisciplinary approach to look at the ocean from a systems point of view. A systems point of view within the ocean, integrating the physics, chemistry, and biology, from microbes to whales, which combine to sustain the marine ecosystem. And a systems point of view integrating the ocean into the entire planetary clockworks—with the atmosphere, land, ice, and life.

The second pillar of WHOI is engineering, from engineering science concept to design to development to fabrication of new technology or sensors that actually work in the ocean. As you heard Sheri White say, the ocean has a host of very particular difficulties and obstacles for engineers.  At WHOI, we have specialized facilities to be able to test those instruments. And then you have to actually take them out into harsh environments at sea. You can build a robotics system that works in a lab or in a swimming pool. But that doesn't seamlessly guarantee that you can operate it—and keep it operating—at the seafloor or in the stormy North Atlantic.

Which brings us to the third pillar. People like Jean Lavache, and all the rest of WHOI's mariners and technicians, who take the scientists and engineers out to sea, and who safely, efficiently, and effectively operate our ships, our moorings, our instruments, and our vehicles. WHOI operates all of these assets on behalf of the nation's entire oceanographic community, with the ability to integrate diverse sensor packages into these platforms, whether to investigate seafloor hydrothermal vents, coastal environments, or deep trenches, or to do microbiology sampling or mapping of vast hidden ocean currents and canyons. That operational know-how and experience, that can-do attitude and dedication of everyone in our operations groups, is an essential pillar of WHOI. It’s dedication to getting the results for the scientists. It’s pride in being part of this knowledge generation. And it’s ultimately about understanding our planet’s last frontier.

It's a circular process, because the operations feed back into how you make a better tool. It's the concept, the design, the fabrication, the testing, and the operations. It's a cycle, a loop, and it's all done in concert and dialogue with scientists. It's the synergy between science, engineering, and operations. Most universities do not have that loop. And that loop also gets you further down the technology-readiness pipeline for commercialization or application—much further than I've seen in any university.

That technology transition might happen in a government lab, but government labs don't have the fourth pillar that WHOI does—the educational component. We've been blessed with a wonderful partnership with MIT through the Joint Program. We also have the ability to award degrees on our own. We have a strong history with the Navy, having graduated more than 75 students with master’s or Ph.D. degrees, who have gone on to achieve high-ranking Navy positions. You may have heard that President Obama’s nominee for the newest Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John M. Richardson, is a Joint Program alumnus, class of '89.

As you can see from Hannah, the Joint Program is brimming with gusto. And then we also have our robust postdoctoral program. Our Summer Student Fellowship program for undergraduates is about to gear up for its 46th year with 33 fellows from eight countries. All these programs brilliantly feed the pipeline to create new leaders in oceanography. And as Hannah said, our students are collaborators. So the educational program keeps WHOI scientists at the top of their game, because these are the young people that will quiz, will question, and will constantly keep WHOI at the forefront of the science.

There you have these four pillars that really make WHOI special, embodied by our panelists today. Unlike a university or government lab, WHOI is a private, nonprofit institution. On the plus side, it makes WHOI nimble, and it gives us freedom. We're not constrained by many governmental or university processes. We can respond quickly, and do things that government or university scientists can't. We can study global problems that don't neatly fit into the bailiwicks of federal agencies or universities, such as radiation in the ocean from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, or searching for the wreckage of Air France 447.

Because of our freedom and our four pillars, WHOI has always been, and continues to be, a leader in oceanography—both in thinking and in doing. From 1930 to now, WHOI has been blazing new trails in scientific inquiry, determining the critical questions that need to be answered, then finding innovative ways to surmount obstacles in the way of knowledge, then building the necessary tools, then going to sea to accomplish the mission.

But the same thing that gives WHOI its strength, in recent times has also made us vulnerable. Because we are not a university, because we are not a government lab, we're constantly looking for resources. Government labs are hard-funded. University scientists have nine months of hard-money support. We do not. Unlike other fields or disciplines, ocean sciences still rely on a large component of funding that is soft money. There's not enough federal funding to support ocean sciences to the level needed, especially given how much we still need to learn about the ocean. We know the ocean is changing rapidly.  These changes will affect agriculture, fisheries, water, food, energy supplies, coastal infrastructure, transportation, and extreme weather, all of which profoundly affects our economy, health, welfare, and security.

At the same time, many nations are developing “blue economies” based on knowledge about the ocean, not only to extract resources such as fish, minerals, oil and gas, but also for aquaculture, bioprospecting, offshore renewable energy, and other economic opportunities.  Any business that is weather- or climate-sensitive will benefit from knowledge about the ocean.

These issues generate big, complex questions. And WHOI is well poised to help answer them. But we are limited by the business model we have. We should be assembling integrated teams and looking at problems with 10-year horizons, but NSF largely funds two- to three-year proposals from individuals. It's like a Ferrari that has to keep stopping for gas. WHOI is a nimble, powerful, finely tuned, and proven enterprise.  It’s a scientific gem, a national asset; we can do phenomenal things. Kudos to the space program and all its discoveries, but NASA's budget is approximately $20 billiona year. Compare that to funding for ocean sciences: NSF is funding $360 million a year to study our planet’s last frontier.

Given the criticality of the ocean to humanity, to our socio-economic environment, to our planetary ecosystem; given the current, new economic fervor to develop ocean economies, it's clearly, critically important to have a more robust ocean research program. I do wish our government would realize that, and I do wish people would realize that, and I do wish philanthropists would realize that.

That's the challenge. To keep this Ferrari of an institution revved up. So WHOI can continue to uncover how our ocean works, for the benefit of humanity and all life on this planet. I will constantly be a voice to promote the value of WHOI to society, and I will continue to push to expand the potential for this singular institution.

Originally published: June 30, 2015