Susan K. Avery, PhD

'It's been a privilege to lead WHOI'

A valedictory letter to the staff

By Susan K, Avery
June 29, 2015

At the end of my term as president and director of WHOI, I want all of you to know that it has been a privilege to lead such a special organization, combining as it does comprehensive ocean science, engineering, at-sea operations, and graduate education. I have loved my time here.  Woods Hole, Falmouth, and Cape Cod have been a wonderful and highly enjoyable home for both Jim and me.  

Seven and a half years have passed so quickly, and it was enough time to initiate and see to completion several important and positive structural changes in the Institution’s operations, both financial and administrative, and to oversee many major science and technology advances at WHOI. There is a great leadership team in place, and I’m proud of our additional hires since my arrival in 2008. I’m also proud of—and continually amazed by—our cadre of exceptional scientists and engineers, , who manage to push the frontiers of ocean science and technology every day on multiple fronts, from the sea surface to mid-water to the hadal zone to, most recently, under-ice studies. From research on climate to the microbiome, they continue to make WHOI a highly distinguished oceanographic institution. All it takes to realize the breadth of research here is to take a look at our website or to see the wide range of WHOI science highlighted in the scientific press or on websites such as that of NSF.

We can all be especially pleased that over the past seven and a half years there has been a significant increase in the application of WHOI knowledge to societal issues, as we provide high-quality data and analysis across a range of topics, from climate to biodiversity to resources to natural hazards mitigation. These efforts have given WHOI’s work reach into new and important arenas. We rapidly mobilized researchers from several different departments to assist the Coast Guard and other responders during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We worked for nearly two years to successfully locate the deep water wreckage of Air France flight 447. We saw another rapid response and mobilization—with essential initial private support—immediately following the disaster at Fukushima, when it was critical to gather data and water samples quickly to determine the amount of radioactivity released into the ocean. 

We concluded a $10 million Arctic research initiative and have begun work on another, as well as an ocean acidification initiative in the northeast, with guidance and oversight by our recently formed Institution Strategy Council, comprised of department chairs, Ocean Institute directors, and representatives from the Directorate, the communications and fund-raising groups, and the Board of Trustees.  We contributed significantly to the National Climate Assessment. We are leaders in studies of coral reef resilience to changes in temperature and pH and in providing the data needed to support reef conservation and the establishment of marine protected areas. And we continue to work on the development and advancement of a variety of ecosystem forecasts for harmful algal blooms and fisheries, which are critical for decision-making. 

We also saw some major technology advances at WHOI, including the upgrade of HOV Alvin for the 21st century, which involved multiple project challenges overcome by Susan Humphris in her role as lead principal investigator; the award and procurement of R/V Neil Armstrong, christened last year and due for delivery in about three months, an effort headed by Rob Munier and others; the design, build, and deployment phases of the Ocean Observatories Initiative, which came with all the challenges of large program management and which called for tight budget controls ably managed by John Trowbridge, Paul Matthias, and Bob Weller, all while helping to install OOI with other programs in the new LOSOS building.  We saw astounding advances in bio-imaging and ocean informatics, with leadership from Andy Maffei, Stace Beaulieu, Heidi Sosik and Joe Futrelle; and we established the Center for Marine Robotics, perhaps our most ambitious initiative, which will advance the field of marine co-robotics under the leadership of Jim Bellingham and bring new academic and industry partnerships to WHOI. My thanks to Larry Madin, Dana Yoerger, Rob Munier, Jim Rakowski, and others for their leadership on that major effort. 

Our academic programs continue to stand out in ocean science education, with consistently top ratings from outside reviewers.  From the exceptional quality of our postdoctoral researchers, to the talent and diversity represented in the Joint Program, to the highly competitive Summer Student Fellows program, all continue to bring credit to the Institution and to enhance our reputation.  My thanks to Jim Yoder and everyone in the Academic Programs Office for not only maintaining the highest standards but developing innovative ways to expand our educational efforts, represented most recently by the new semester for credit offering for undergraduates.

It’s also gratifying that we have increased our public outreach efforts over the past several years.  Fritz Heide, Lonny Lippsett, Stephanie Murphy and the rest of our communications group worked hard to put together several events that opened the doors of WHOI to the community in highly effective ways.  The example that stands out in my memory is a 2011 event to celebrate the many discoveries associated with the R/V Knorr. I recall dozens of WHOI staff, who volunteered their weekend time, standing for hours in pouring rain offering umbrellas as visitors formed a long queue to tour the ship.

Administratively, WHOI has faced enormous challenges in successfully transitioning from a defined benefit to a defined contribution employee retirement plan. I’m proud that we’ve controlled medical costs, that we’re well down the road to transition from a labor-based business model to modified total direct cost accounting, and that we’ve realized new unrestricted revenue from the sale of donated nonessential real estate (which is the source of funds to build our new dormitory) even as we’ve begun a comprehensive facilities review. My thanks to Jeffrey Fernandez for managing those efforts. We have reorganized administrative functions to reduce costs and for greater efficiency and accountability, and I’m especially happy that we have managed, in collaboration with the Institution’s scientific and Board leadership, to develop and implement a plan that balances our operating budget. Our fund-raising team also set new records in securing philanthropic support for the Institution, and our Board and Corporation members are fully engaged and passionately committed to our mission.

We have also formed important new philanthropic relationships, one of which led to the Jim Cameron donation of his Deepsea Challenger vehicle and his help in bringing the message about the importance of WHOI and ocean science to a wide range of audiences, from K-12 students and educators to members of Congress. Another is our carefully nurtured relationship with Ray Dalio, which has opened new seagoing opportunities for our research staff aboard his ships Alucia and Umbra, and which resulted in the establishment of the Dalio Explore Fund. To date, Ray’s belief in the mission and capabilities of WHOI has brought us 22 grants for science and engineering totaling more than $9 million. Combined with our provision of marine operations support and other activities, we have benefited from this one major donor relationship to the tune of $30 million in four years.

Our latest initiative is the first phase of what we internally termed a “blueprint” for growth and development, aimed at examining closely all of our operations and facilities with an eye to determining the best course toward a self-sustaining portfolio of diverse funding for research. We cannot afford to be complacent about government support of fundamental research, no matter how great our past success in competing for grants and contracts.  We have encouraged the research staff to take a new view of the Institution’s entrepreneurial culture, one that welcomes appropriately structured partnerships (including international, most recently with the Ocean University of China) and collaborations in the private, academic, and industrial sectors, while continuing to base our excellence on individual, discovery-driven research, and also while continuing to advocate for public support of that research. We have been striving hard to complete work on a number of what we call blueprint building blocks, such as the just-completed Institution visiting committee.  My successor can take these building blocks and have a voice in the final phases of planning and then take ownership of implementing the recommendations that result, a process that will inevitably take several years.

In sum, I know that the next leader and this great group of accomplished scientific and engineering staff, devoted technical support staff, strong administrative team, and creative students and postdocs will continue to make WHOI excel. The Board has asked me to remain available to assist in the transition and to provide the necessary overlap to enable a smooth handoff of leadership duties, and I will remain connected to the Institution in the long term, engaged in whatever way most useful. Full retirement is not my plan—I will continue to serve in a variety of capacities, including active membership on the United Nations Scientific Advisory Board and on advisory bodies for Federal agencies and the National Academies. 

Thank you for all your well wishes, and I very much look forward to continuing our work together on behalf of the global ocean and ocean science.

Last updated: July 23, 2015