Deputy Director & Vice President for Research

WHOI Catalyst Program


The Catalyst Program supports the design, refinement, and execution of cutting-edge scientific initiatives at WHOI. The competitive, two-phase award process is open to all members of the WHOI scientific and senior technical staff who think they have a project that might help reinforce WHOI’s position as a leader in ocean science and engineering. 

In general, a successful Catalyst proposal should:

  • Foster new avenues of research and engineering
  • Provide a focus on WHOI science that is a springboard for Development activities involving potential and current donors
  • Engage Board and Corporation members to assist them in understanding and promoting the Institution
  • Offer an access point for entities including policy makers, corporations, and educators to engage WHOI staff 

Phase 1 awards will provide seed funding for two or more projects with the expectation that these will, in turn, generate significant new revenue for the Institution from new government and/or private sources. Each project leader will convene an advisory panel that will provide guidance on the scientific direction of the project, communications efforts, and fundraising avenues, especially those involving non-traditional sources. Phase 1 initiatives will be eligible to apply for a single annual award of Phase 2 funding.

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plastics in the ocean

Marine MicroPlastics: An Opportunity to Study How Humans Influence the Ocean and How the Earth/Ocean System Works

PI: Scott Gallager

An estimated average of 5-13 million metric tons of single-use plastic products enter the world’s ocean each year, are degraded, and become what are known as microplastics. These tiny particulate plastics are now found in all five of the world’s subtropical gyres and remote areas, including the Marianas Trench, Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, and pristine tropical islands. The fate of marine microplastics is only starting to be revealed, but is fundamentally an oceanographic problem since their distribution is a function of marine processes that export them to the deep sea. More and better science is needed to fully understand this global problem. WHOI is working to elevate this field to provide critical insights into how humans influence the ocean and to identify risks, guide allocation of resources, forecast changes, and stimulate the use of these unique anthropogenic “tracers” to study how the earth/ocean system works. MORE

Exploration of Ocean Worlds

PIs: Chris German (G&G) & Jim Bellingham (CMR) 

Until just two decades ago, Earth’s ocean was thought to be unique in the solar system. Recent discoveries, however, have revealed a growing catalog of other planetary bodies that also host liquid water oceans. In at least two cases—Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus—salt water oceans come into direct contact with a rocky seafloor, an environment that is arguably more familiar to WHOI scientists and engineers than they are to most planetary researchers. 

Immediate questions that have arisen from these discoveries include: How do those oceans differ from our own? Do they exhibit common physical and geochemical processes? And perhaps most exciting of all, Could these ocean worlds host alien life? In December 2015, Congress recommended that NASA create an Ocean Worlds Exploration program, with a primary mission “to discover extant life on another world.” WHOI already enjoys an enviable reputation as a leader in exploring Earth’s oceans and in understanding the variety of geochemical conditions capable of supporting life here. This proposal seeks to establish WHOI at the forefront of the new and exciting field in oceanographic research of understanding oceans on other worlds. 

Illuminating the ocean's twilight zone: an integrated approach to understand the mesopelagic

Dana Yoerger, Peter Wiebe, Annette Govindarajan, Joel Llopiz, Jonathan Howland 

We envision a large-scale, multi-disciplinary initiative to investigate the ocean’s mesopelagic zone. It is one of the largest habitats on Earth, yet it remains among the least explored and understood. 

The mesopelagic—also known as the midwater or “twilight zone”—extends from 200 to 1000 meters below the ocean’s surface. Mesopelagic organisms play critical roles in supporting the ocean's food web and regulating the “biological pump” that transfers carbon from the atmosphere to the deep sea, thereby slowing global climate change. But they are also at risk from warming temperatures, ocean acidification, and commercial fishing. Interest in harvesting the mesopelagic is surging, as resources in coastal and surface waters dwindle and new industrial-scale fishing technology develops. 

Advances in scientific and engineering technologies—including robotic vehicles, samplers, acoustic and optical imaging, and genomics—offer unprecedented potential for understanding mesopelagic life and processes. WHOI’s scientific and technological expertise make it uniquely positioned to lead such an effort, which we anticipate will shed new light on this poorly known and potentially vulnerable region of the ocean, and also lead to policy actions to sustain its resources into the future.

The Ocean MicroWeb Center: Microbes, chemicals, and interactions in ocean microbiomes

PIs: Elizabeth Kujawinski, Amy Apprill, Colleen Hansel, Mak Saito, Benjamin Van Mooy

Each person is host to a “microbiome,” a complex world of microbes in specific parts of our bodies that helps maintain our health. The ocean also contains microbiomes, communities of microorganisms inhabiting different ecosystems, such as animals, coral reefs, or open water. Microbes communicate with each other, provide substances and services to each other, and carry out chemical, mineral, and nutrient cycling in the ocean—that are critically important for ocean health. Microbial communities are extremely sensitive to chemical or physical changes and are indicators of stress in ocean systems.

Human microbiomes are now being studied extensively, but ocean microbiomes are a mostly unexplored universe. Prior research concentrated on “What microbes are there?” with genomics analysis. Our group is investigating higher-order questions of “What functions do microbiomes perform?” and “How do microbial communities change under stress, such as a warming climate, a bleaching reef or stressed whale?” With diagnostic techniques developed in health sciences, we analyze proteins, metabolites, and lipids to study how ocean microbiomes function, and their resilience or adaptability to changes in the ocean. Our goal is to establish an Ocean MicroWeb Center at WHOI dedicated to studying the universe of ocean microbiomes and predicting how they may change in the future. 


Last updated: March 31, 2019