Smitten by Science

Remarks to the National Science Youth Foundation Camp Annual Senate Luncheon

Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D
Under Secretary of Commerce for the Oceans and Atmosphere                                                    
and NOAA Administrator                                                                                                                
Washington, DC

As delivered

July 22, 2011

Thank you, Senator[Rockefeller]!  It’s an honor and privilege to be here today.

If you don’t know it already, Senator Rockefeller has been a great champion of science in this country.   And the National Youth Science Foundation is just one of the many ways he shows his support.

I confess that I, too, am an advocate for science.  And, a scientist as well – specifically, a marine ecologist.  Today I’m going to tell you a little bit about how I was bitten by the science bug, how a Colorado girl became a marine biologist, why science is important to everyone, and how we turn science into solutions for the planet.

How I was bitten by the science bug

I liked science in high school, but, truth be told, I liked lots of things.  A week-long summer science camp after my junior year exposed me to a broader range of science than I’d been exposed to in high school and it gave me great opportunities to see that I was good at it as well, and to connect with other students who shared my interests. 

Although I continued to like most subjects in college, I was particularly intrigued with biology.  I had the great fortune to attend Colorado College, a small, liberal arts school that offered great professors and ample opportunity for spectacular field trips.   I had already spent a lot of time in the Rocky Mountains, hiking, fishing, camping, learning natural history, and being intrigued by patterns in nature.  Now I could learn the science behind those patterns.

How I became a marine biologist 

Then in the summer between my junior and senior years, I had a life-altering experience.  I was given the gift of a summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.  And when I say “gift”, I don’t mean that I didn’t work hard for it.  I had to apply and get accepted into the program – probably not very different from what you went through to get in the program in West Virginia.   But it was a gift in the sense that it opened my eyes to new worlds -- marine biology and the joys of research.  It became the portal to my future. 

The Marine Biological Laboratory was the Mecca of marine biology.  It had an aura of greatness, complete with a plethora of Nobel Laureates doing research there or coming to give lectures, all set in a relaxed, sea-side community right on Cape Cod.  Its history dates back to 1888.  Its unofficial motto is a quote from Louis Agassiz, “Study Nature, Not Books” that, ironically, is inscribed above the entrance to the library! 

The intellectual atmosphere was intoxicating; there were passionate discussions and arguments about biological patterns and processes.  Almost daily, I’d be inspired by a new idea. I was struck by something that the Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said in one of his lectures: ‘A genius is someone who sees what others have seen but thinks what no one else has thought.’ 

But amidst the intellectual excitement, it was the critters that really captured my imagination.  I was taking a course in invertebrate zoology – the myriad creatures without backbones that populate the planet, but especially the oceans.  Guided by the systematic approach of the course and the opportunity for exploration and field trips, I discovered an entirely new world that I had no idea existed.

I found marine life exotic and endlessly fascinating.  Sea stars, squid, sea urchins, crabs, sponges, barnacles – all sorts of bizarre critters, each with a different solution to the common challenges of finding food, shelter and mates and avoiding being eaten. 

I discovered I was good at detecting patterns, at distinguishing something different from the background.  I learned that thinking about things in a different way from everyone else is often valuable in science.

And Woods Hole is where I fell in love with doing research.  I spent the second half of the summer conducting my own research project.  I discovered I loved problem solving, designing experiments, learning how to analyze and make sense out of data.  I worked extremely hard but I loved every single minute.

That whole summer was magical for me.  As 20-year-old from Colorado, I decided then and there that following my senior year, I would go to grad school and study marine biology.   I did just that, and I’ve never looked back.  I’ve loved every minute of it.

Grad school turned out to be at the University of Washington and at Harvard.  I continued to be exposed to different ways of thinking about problems.  For example, I was exposed to the pioneering approaches of experimental field ecology.  At the time, experiments were common in physiology or other laboratory disciplines, but unheard of in field work.  I had the great fortune to work with scientists who developed new techniques for doing experiments in the field – transplanting species from low on the seashore to higher up in the intertidal zone, for example, or caging out predators -- to test hypotheses and figure out what was causing a particular pattern.   Distinguishing causation from correlation turned out to be key to advancing understanding.

And so my research was experimental.  I discovered new patterns and new insights into causes of patterns in nature.   For example, ecologists were and are interested in discovering why some places have large number of species and others have few.  Most ideas about causes of patterns had focused on differences from one place to another in physical factors such as temperature. 

I noticed that different tide pools on rocky seashores in Massachusetts had different numbers of seaweeds despite having nearly identical physical characteristics.  In looking more closely, I noticed that there were also different numbers of snails in the pools -- snails that eat seaweeds. 

Here is the pattern I observed and quantified.  See if you come up with the same hypothesis that I did:  (1) Ponds with few snails had a low diversity of seaweeds and the seaweeds were primarily green algae.  (2) Ponds with intermediate number of snails had the highest diversity of seaweeds, of virtually all kinds.  (3) Ponds with the largest number of snails had low diversity, but mostly red seaweeds. 

Visualize a plot of snail abundance on the X-axis and seaweed diversity on the Y-axis:  the first data point is for few snails and low seaweed diversity (and mostly green seaweeds); the next point is for intermediate abundance of snails and high diversity of seaweeds; the third represents high numbers of snails and low diversity, and mostly red seaweeds.  A unimodal curve.

I hypothesized that some seaweeds were more palatable to snails than other seaweeds, i.e., that snails would preferentially eat some seaweeds.  I tested this in the laboratory by offering snails choices of different seaweeds and found that indeed they did consistently choose certain seaweeds over others, specifically, the greens first, then browns, then reds. 

I then hypothesized that the seaweeds that were more tasty were also the better competitors for space.  In other words, if snails were rare, the tasty seaweeds would out compete other seaweeds, resulting in low diversity.  If snails were super abundant, they would eat everything palatable, leaving only a few species of seaweeds.  And an intermediate number of snails would keep the competitive dominants in check, allowing the largest number of species of seaweeds to coexist.  Nice hypotheses, consistent with the information, but was it true?   How would you test these ideas?

To test my hypothesis, I manipulated the abundance of snails in a series of similar sized pools at similar tidal levels.  I removed snails from some pools, added them to others and measured subsequent changes in seaweeds through time.  Lo, and behold, I could change the diversity and kind of seaweeds simply by changing the abundance of snails. 

This was a simple, compelling and early demonstration of the important influence of biological factors – in this case herbivory -- in determining patterns of distribution and abundance and diversity.  We now understand that biological factors such as competition and herbivory or predation, interact with physical factors to determine who lives where.   And the paper that I published from these experiments became a ‘Science Citation Classic’ meaning that it has been cited by other scientists a lot. 

This story makes three important points. 

Why science is important to everyone

At NOAA, we do ecological research as well as other kinds of science.

NOAA stands for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We operate from the bottom of the ocean to the surface of the sun.  The oceans and the atmosphere are interconnected, so it makes good sense to have them in the same agency.

We produce daily weather forecasts and severe storm warnings. We monitor climate. We manage fisheries, restore coastlines, support marine commerce and promote healthy oceans.  And these are interconnected.  Adding information about ocean temperature to our hurricane models, for example, vastly improved the accuracy of the models.  NOAA’s products and services support the economy and protect lives and property.  NOAA’s dedicated scientists use cutting-edge research, innovation, and high-tech instrumentation to provide citizens, planners, emergency managers, businesses and others with reliable information they can trust and use.

Our mission is science, service, and stewardship.  Our job is to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and
to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.

Science at NOAA builds the knowledge we need to make environmental predictions.  Science guides us toward the best tools for protecting our oceans, our coasts, and Great Lakes, and the people who live there.  And these tools provide the solutions to many of the very daunting challenges we face on our planet today.  They are our hope for ending the overfishing that has depleted fish populations in the ocean.  They are our hope for protecting and restoring the biodiversity the planet needs to maintain healthy ocean and coastal ecosystems.  They are the hope for helping people all over the world prepare for tsunamis, drought, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and other disasters and extreme weather events.  All of that can come out of science.  And we create jobs by rebuilding depleted fisheries or restoring coastal habitat.  We create good jobs now and for the future.

Now I’m going to show you one small part of the science we do at NOAA. And I’m also going to tell you how that science became a solution to a practical problem.  I think you’ll see some similarities between the science we do at NOAA, and the science from my grad school days.

You see on the poster here and on your handouts a picture of a marine pteropod, a swimming sea snail about the size of a lentil.  Some call it a sea butterfly.  It’s easy to see why: they fly delicately and gracefully through the water.

Pteropods live in the upper depths of oceans all over the world.  They live in cold, fragile Arctic waters, in temperate zones, and warm, tropical seas. 

Pteropods are a major food source for many species of fish such as salmon and other marine species.

Like other snails, the animal lives inside its shell.  The shell is made of calcium carbonate, not unlike the shells of oysters. 

Scientists have recently discovered that the chemistry of the ocean is changing in ways that affect pteropods as well as oysters and other shelled plants and animals.  Specifically the burning of fossil fuels has caused an increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.  This carbon dioxide, or CO2, doesn’t just stay in the atmosphere – roughly 30 percent of it is absorbed by the ocean. 

When oceans absorb CO2, they become more acidic. This is the process called ocean acidification.   We know that oceans are now about 30 percent more acidic than they were at the beginning of the last century.  They have been absorbing more and more CO2 and thus becoming more acidic. 

What are the consequences of these changes in ocean chemistry? And what is likely to happen in the future?

Using ocean models, we can make projections of changes in ocean acidity, or pH, over time.  And we can simulate future likely conditions in the laboratory.  The images you see on the poster and handouts describe what happened to pteropod shells when they were placed in ocean water that is similar to what scientists expect to occur by the end of this century.  Because that ocean water is more acidic, the shell dissolves away. 

Scientists expect that most plants and animals in the ocean that have external shells or skeletons made of calcium carbonate will be affected by ocean acidification.  This includes not only pteropods but also oysters, clams, corals, lobsters, crabs, sea stars, sea urchins and many kinds of microscopic plants in the ocean. 

Some call ocean acidification ‘osteoporosis of the sea’.

This is clearly a potentially serious problem.  NOAA and other scientists are busily gaining more information about rates of change, how these changes impact different kinds of species, how changes in some species like pteropods will affect other species such as the salmon that feed on pteropods, and what in addition to reducing release of CO2 into the atmosphere might be done to help with this problem.    

How science turns into a solution

Now I want to show you how science is transformed into a solution.

To do so, we’re going to jump to an oyster hatchery in Oregon to see how knowing the science of ocean acidification helps us.

About six years ago, some oyster hatcheries – commercial oyster farms – in Oregon and Washington began to see an alarming decline in oyster production.  Their oyster larvae were dying and they didn’t know why.  The primary suspect was disease, but the reality was no one really knew what was happening. 

By 2008, the oyster harvest at Whiskey Creek, a major Oregon supplier to the majority of West Coast oyster farmers, plummeted 80 percent. At about the same time, scientists were documenting acidified seawater along the West Coast.

Something had to be done. Oyster production accounts for more than $84 million of the West Coast shellfish industry, supporting more than 3,000 jobs.  Scientists in Oregon who were part of an international team studying ocean acidification thought that ocean acidification might be the culprit.  They hypothesized that since ocean acidification is a relatively recent phenomenon, hatchery owners would have seen a lethal effect only recently.

The scientists knew that water from the local bay was used to grow oyster larvae at the hatchery and that during the summer months, this water is intermittently more acidic than normal.  They worked with the hatchery to see if oyster larval die-off was correlated with periods of more acidic water. 

Once scientists determined that ocean acidification was a probable cause for their production problems, hatchery owners and scientists developed protocols to “neutralize” water during times when the incoming seawater was more acidic.  It worked beautifully. 

Today, a network of offshore buoys detects the pH of seawater and provides real-time data as an early warning system for shellfish hatcheries. The buoys signal the approach of cold, acidified seawater one to two days before it arrives in the sensitive coastal waters where larvae are cultivated. The data help hatchery managers schedule production for the times when pH is favorable to larvae and avoid wasting valuable energy and other resources when the pH is too low.

Armed with better information about the ocean conditions that oysters can and cannot tolerate, Taylor Shellfish Farms, in Washington state, was able to adapt its operations accordingly. Last year was its best year since 1989. Whiskey Creek, in Oregon, also enjoyed substantial increases in its oyster harvest. In 2008, productivity for Whiskey Creek was at just 20 percent of its normal level; by 2010, it had risen to 70 percent. 

Ocean acidification is an emerging global problem, particularly because shelled organisms like oysters and pteropods are key species in the marine food web.  As human food and a source of income, shellfish also sustain many millions of people worldwide. Keeping an eye on changing ocean conditions through buoy networks and other sophisticated observing systems is paramount.

Ocean acidification is one of many changes we face in the world’s oceans today.  Senator Rockefeller mentioned another – overfishing and consequent loss of many of top predators in the oceans.  Recognizing the importance of addressing these problems and returning oceans to a healthy state, President Obama signed, a year ago this week, the nation’s first ever National Ocean Policy.  This policy is already beginning to make important changes, and it is solidly grounded in good science.


Science begins with information about what is happening.  At NOAA, we observe in many ways:  satellites in space, planes in the air, radar on the ground, ships and buoys on the water, and gliders under the sea.  Scientists use those observations and basic scientific knowledge about processes to build and constantly improve our understanding of how the world works, how it is changing and what are the likely consequences of different policy or management options.  And science can point us to possible solutions. 

I know that you’re serious about science.  I invite you to come take a look at NOAA. We have an enormously wide range of career opportunities to explore.  Whether you’re interested in weather, oceans, biology, ecology, physics, atmospheric science, microbiology, chemistry, or being an ocean explorer, NOAA could be a good fit for you.   We can’t do the science or develop the solutions without the best possible people to do our great science.  At NOAA, people are our greatest asset. 

At NOAA, we love, do, and use science.  Science is a powerful tool.  Our science affects human health, the economy, national and homeland security, and human well-being.  We look to you – the next generation of scientists – to inspire and produce the knowledge and innovations we’ll need tomorrow.  That’s why I’m so pleased you’re here today.  We’re counting on you.

I’ll be posting something about this event on my facebook page – so check it out! 

Thank you.

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Join us on Facebook, Twitter and our other social media channels.