Jamie Austin grew up with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in his sights. During summers at his family’s home on Martha’s Vineyard, Woods Hole was a popular sailing destination. On occasion, WHOI scientists would come over to test instruments on the front lawn, delighting the young rock collector with stories of research at sea. When his father, James, was invited to join the inaugural voyage of WHOI’s former research vessel Knorr, it sparked Austin’s nearly 50-year relationship with the Institution.
“To me, there was nothing more romantic than sailing and doing oceanography,” Austin says over coffee at Martha’s Vineyard’s iconic Black Dog Tavern. “Both those things led me to Woods Hole.”
Austin first came to campus in 1973 as a doctoral student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program, graduating in 1979. Though he spent his academic career as a geophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin, he returned as chief scientist on a number of WHOI-operated research cruises. In 1998, Austin became a WHOI Member of Corporation, and since 2007 he has served as a Trustee. He takes his role seriously, meeting with individual scientists whenever he’s in town—and is known to buy rounds at a local bar for anyone affiliated with the Institution. In addition to this personal touch, Austin is dedicated to ensuring WHOI’s long-term financial sustainability. That’s why, in June 2022, he increased the value of his endowed fund to $5 million, providing unrestricted support for WHOI’s strategic goals.
“I trust Peter de Menocal’s leadership, so that’s why I gave this money unrestricted,” Austin says. “Estate giving makes you feel like you’re moving the needle. Everyone who can do it, should.”
Austin has plenty of ideas of how he’d like to move the needle—investment in housing for scientific and technical staff, for starters—but says he believes WHOI’s big-picture initiatives deserve all the support they can get.
“Every time I make a gift, I think how it’s my whole family’s legacy behind it,” Austin says. “My father said, before he died, ‘do good things with it.’ This gift is continuity for my family.”
As an oceanographic geologist, Austin dedicated his career to studying how global sea-level change impacts continental margins. He came into the profession just as the theory of tectonic plates and continental drift was becoming accepted fact, and nuclear war and radioactive waste were the biggest crises facing the planet. Now, Austin says, “it’s all hands on deck” to tackle the climate crisis—and the ocean’s role in mitigating its impacts. The decisions we make now, he says, will be judged by history.
“We are going to have to face the fact that we’re changing the climate rapidly. And if we don’t get the resources to focus on that, we are not going to understand how to mitigate that change. Woods Hole is a big enough place for scientists to pursue their intellectual freedom with pure scientific research and to drive societally-relevant programs.”
—WHOI trustee Jamie Austin
In honor of his long-standing service and generosity, WHOI plans to name the James A. Austin, Jr. Seafloor Samples Lab in the McLean building on Quissett Campus.