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WHOI To Present Mary Sears Woman Pioneer in Oceanography Award to California Scientist March 28

March 20, 2002

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) will present one of its highest honors, the Mary Sears Woman Pioneer in Oceanography Award, to California Biologist Mary Wilcox Silver. A Professor of Ocean Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Dr. Silver is being honored for providing “significant scientific leadership in understanding our marine environment” and recognized for providing “the inspiration and/or opportunity for other women in marine sciences.” Colleagues note that she has “led the way for people with strong family commitments to go to sea, showing that scientists could combine challenging, field-based careers with family life.”

Dr. Silver will receive the award, a glass jellyfish sculpture and monetary prize, and deliver the award lecture, entitled “Life and Times of a Woman Oceanographer” March 28 at 2 p.m. at the Institution’s Clark Laboratory, Room 507, on the Quissett Campus. The award ceremony, lecture and reception to follow are open to the public.

During her visit to the Institution Dr. Silver will also meet with staff, attend a luncheon with MIT/WHOI Joint Graduate Program students, and present an informal science seminar entitled “Eating Well in a Marine Food Web: Those Annoying Algal Toxins” on Friday, March 29, at 10:30 a.m. in the Institution’s Redfield Auditorium, 45 Water Street, Woods Hole. She will also have lunch with past and present members of the Institution’s Women’s Committee and meet with the WHOI Mentoring Committee.

“This is a wonderful way to recognize the significant attributes and skills of Mary Sears,” WHOI Director Robert Gagosian said. “I’m delighted Mary Silver is receiving this honor. Her contributions to marine science and education, and her leadership in mentoring junior staff, are fitting tributes to the high standards, spirit of collaboration and strong commitment to the field exemplified by Mary Sears. I know Mary Sears would be proud and very pleased by this award.”

Mary Wilcox Silver’s career in oceanography began in 1964 at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, when she entered the doctoral program in biological oceanography. Her thesis research involved studying the role of a common zooplankter, the salp, as a key herbivore in the California Current. Her research provided some of the first estimates of the feeding capacity of salps, illuminating the critical role of sporadically blooming jelly plankton as major consumers of primary production in this eastern boundary current.

Mary Wilcox Silver received her Ph.D. from Scripps in 1971, and in 1972 was appointed Assistant Professor of Marine Studies at the new campus of the University of California in Santa Cruz, where she has been teaching large, non-major undergraduate classes as well as specialty upper division and graduate classes for some 30 years. As the founding member the Marine Science academic program, she has taught over 4,000 students and has sponsored and encouraged many young marine biologists and oceanographers.

The work for which Mary Wilcox Silver is best known, her marine snow studies, began with undergraduate students taking her biological oceanography class in the mid 1970s. It resulted in the first estimates of the abundance of “marine snow”—nonliving particles more than 0.5 millimeters in diameter and readily visible to the unaided eye—and the communities of microorganisms that inhabit them. The research showed that many planktonic organisms thought to be “free-living” actually reside on particles. Because these organisms are abundant and active, the particles are, in fact, semi-isolated microhabitats for dense and unique microbial communities.

In the late 1990s, Silver began focusing largely on the transfer of phytoplankton toxins through marine communities, from fish and krill to marine birds and filter-feeding whales. Working with her students, she is studying domoic acid, the recently discovered toxin responsible for amnesic shellfish poisoning that is induced by some diatoms, a type of algae. Since the diatoms also flocculate and settle as marine snow particles through the water and onto the underlying sediments, she is also beginning to study the potential contamination of seafloor communities by the algal toxins. Her work on plankton-derived toxins combines a long-standing interest in the natural history of pelagic or open ocean communities with her more oceanographically oriented research on material flux. Collaborating with her students and many colleagues in biological and chemical oceanography, Mary Wilcox Silver hopes to continue work in this more applied area of marine science, addressing problems related to ocean health and the possible involvement of humans in coastal ocean change.

The Women Pioneer in Oceanography Award was initiated by the WHOI Women’s Committee as part of a Women’s History Month celebration in March 1994, with Mary Sears its first recipient. Other recipients include Elizabeth Bunce of WHOI in 1995, Ruth Turner of Harvard University in 1996, and Marie Tharp of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in 1999. Mary Wilcox Silver is the first recipient of the Woman Pioneer in Oceanography Award named for Mary Sears, who died in 1997. The award was proposed by the WHOI Women’s Committee in the late 1990s, and, upon the Director’s recommendation, the Executive Committee of the Institution Board of Trustees created it in December 1999.

The award recognizes long-term, life achievement and impact, with special consideration given to candidates who also have shown leadership through mentoring junior scientists, technicians, or students. It is named for Mary Sears, one of the first staff members of the Institution and a guiding force in its development.

Mary Sears received her doctoral degree in biology from Radcliffe College in 1933 and went on to pursue a life long career in oceanography. She is widely credited with turning a new, obscure field into a prestigious international science, and was the founding and long-time editor of the journal Deep-Sea Research. She also helped to establish the journal Progress in Oceanography, and served as editor of a number of books considered milestones on documenting the history of marine science. As a principal organizer of the first International Oceanographic Congress at the United Nations, she forged many important links with marine scientists around the world. During World War II she organized and led the new Oceanographic Unit of the Navy Hydrographic Office, which provided the foundation for the current Naval Oceanographic Office. As a member of nine scientific and honorary societies and long-time member of the governing board of WHOI, she provided leadership across the field and was an important mentor to generations of young scientists.