Oceans’ Ambassador

Jane Lubchenco has embraced many roles: marine ecologist, science communicator, federal agency administrator, and sustainable fishing advocate.

By | July 17, 2017

Jane Lubchenco
University Distinguished Professor and Advisor in
   Marine Studies, Oregon State University
Former Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans
   and Atmosphere and Former Administrator of the  
   National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (2009–2013)
Former US Science Envoy for the Ocean,
   US State Department (2014–2016)
JOY LEIGHTON
Jane Lubchenco was a Harvard University assistant professor of ecology in 1976 when she and her husband, Bruce Menge, an ecologist at the University of Massachusetts, began to look for academic positions that would allow more time for each to spend with the family they hoped to have. The young couple realized that their biology fieldwork and teaching left little room for time with kids. Because neither wanted to put their career on hold, they proposed a novel idea to the departments where they interviewed. They asked to be treated as two independent, tenure-track professors, but to split one tenure-track position into two half-time positions. Most universities shied away, but at Oregon State University (OSU), both the faculty and the dean were willing to try the unusual arrangement.

The couple moved to OSU in 1977, and their first son, Alexei, was born the following summer. As a three-week-old, Alexei accompanied his parents on a research trip to Panama. Their second son, Duncan, was born three years later and spent his first summer on a field expedition, camping with his parents and brother on the Oregon coast. A decade later, both parents were tenured and ready to work three-quarters time. When the boys were 13 and 10 years old, the couple switched to full-time. “The positions allowed us the flexibility to organize our lives in the way that worked best for us,” says Lubchenco.

“Science can’t tell society what to do. We must work together to identify problems and find solutions.”

So many scientists inquired about the couple’s positions that the two penned a personal account of their maverick job arrangement. While the setup is still uncommon, says Lubchenco, there are now thousands of similar split positions around the country, and universities in general have evolved in their understanding and flexibility of parents’ schedules and demands.

Lubchenco’s research on the causes of the patterns of distribution, abundance, and diversity exhibited by the plants and animals in marine communities evolved into an investigation of ecological trends on a global scale. As she began to engage more with the public, Lubchenco served for 10 years as a member of the National Science Board, the board of directors of the National Science Foundation, and served as president of three professional scientific societies. Later, she served for four years as the head of a US government agency before returning to academia.

Here, Lubchenco talks about how her parents kept her and her five sisters busy, how a study she led became the springboard for her active role in public service, and how—with vinegar, calcium chalk, and water in hand—she demonstrated the deleterious effects of ocean acidification at a congressional hearing.

Lubchenco Launches

Water baby. Lubchenco grew up in Denver, Colorado, the oldest of six sisters. Her father was a surgeon and her mother, a pediatrician. “We were around a lot of science and medical talk, and that was second nature for us,” she says. Growing up, the outdoors and swimming were constants for Lubchenco. “Our family had a membership to a man-made lake in what was then the outskirts of Denver, and all six of us would live in our swimsuits all summer long.” Lubchenco’s parents also encouraged the girls to participate in sports. After shuttling all six to their respective ballet classes, Lubchenco’s mom figured out that all the girls could do swimming or diving at the same time. Motivated by a coach who was a former Olympic diving champion, Lubchenco continued to dive in high school and informally coached a men’s diving team while she was in college. She was also an active Girl Scout and played basketball and volleyball at her all-girls high school. “In hindsight, the experiences of both individual and team sports were really helpful for learning to set my own goals and rely on myself, but also for learning to lead or to follow as part of a group,” she says.

Laying out her path. Entering Colorado College in 1965, Lubchenco was one of twenty incoming students chosen to take part in a four-year program called the Ford Foundation Independent Study Program. The experimental program had no class requirements and only two exams during the students’ four years. “Each of us had to figure out how we learned best and what we wanted to study. There was no feedback in the form of grades, and about half of the students dropped out because they wanted a more structured curriculum.” Lubchenco loved it. As she had in high school, Lubchenco found an inspirational science teacher, Mary Alice Hamilton, who occasionally recommended a student to attend the invertebrate zoology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Lubchenco spent the summer before her senior year taking the course, mostly attended by graduate students, and was asked to stay on to do an independent six-week project with one of the course instructors, W.D. “Gus” Russell-Hunter, a malacologist. “It was a transformative summer for me. I was already comfortable with water and I absolutely fell in love with the ocean and its world of amazing biodiversity. I got tips about graduate school from hanging out with graduate students. I did my first research project and realized I loved the hands-on work, posing hypotheses, designing experiments, and testing them,” she says.

Ecological mosaic. To be close to the ocean, Lubchenco chose to enter the University of Washington’s zoology PhD program, where she studied the foraging strategies of predators in rocky intertidal-zone communities. Lubchenco’s advisor was Bob Paine, who is not included as an author on her papers because the convention in ecology is that direct data contribution is needed for authorship. That first year, she met a sixth-year marine ecology graduate student, Bruce Menge, who had just accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Lubchenco took a leave of absence from her program and moved with Menge, but continued to go back to conduct the independent experiments that she had begun at the Friday Harbor Laboratories in Washington on the coexistence strategies of competing species of sea stars in Washington State and the foraging habits of a sea snail, Acanthina punctulata. At the end of the year the couple married, and Lubchenco converted her research project into a master’s thesis.

The newlyweds moved to the East Coast, where Menge was starting an assistant professorship at the University of Massachusetts. A year later, in 1972, Lubchenco entered Harvard’s ecology PhD program. Her thesis focused on the herbivore-plant dynamics of intertidal marine communities, including the relationship between algae and an herbivorous marine snail that consumes them; Menge studied the predator-prey component of these communities. She and Menge often put their findings together to show the bigger ecological picture of these intertidal zones in New England. “The rocky intertidal seashores are relatively easy to manipulate using cages to remove consumers or competitors. This experimental marine ecology approach, partly initiated by Bob Paine, was a new way of getting to the causes of the patterns we see in nature. Most of ecology until that time was based only on correlations,” says Lubchenco.

Lubchenco Leads

Lessons in diversity. After the couple’s move to OSU in 1977, Lubchenco initially worked on comparing the dynamics of the temperate seashores of New England with the tropical seashores in Panama. “There were a lot of studies on terrestrial systems, but not many on marine ones at the time,” she says. As OSU faculty, she and Menge spent their first several winters and summers in Panama, with research positions at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. They discovered that the tropical rocky seashores in Panama were home to an extremely diverse set of invertebrates and fishes, even though there was little seaweed diversity. “This was surprising because the dogma was that the tropics are more diverse in all species,” she says. Another surprise, she says, was that many of the herbivore and predator species were generalists rather than specialists. “Ecologists had assumed that in such diverse, complex systems, the animals would be highly specialized.”

A new role. Lubchenco and Menge continued to work on the factors that influence coastal communities, expanding their comparisons to communities in New Zealand, Chile, and South Africa, geographically distant locales that all have coastal ecosystems with similar types of oceanographic and atmospheric patterns. In 1988, Lubchenco became the vice president of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and spearheaded the creation of a prioritized ecological research agenda “so that when the larger scientific community came together to discuss funding and budgets, ecologists as a group had their act together,” she says. That work, published in 1991 as “The Sustainable Biosphere Initiative,” laid out biodiversity, climate change, and sustainability as the core priorities of ecological researchers. “Essentially, we connected the dots between very basic, seemingly esoteric work of ecologists and its relevance to society. It sent the message that cutting-edge research that both advances knowledge and is immediately relevant to society is more important now than ever before. And it made the case for why ecology as a science is so important,” says Lubchenco. The report brought ESA onto the radar screen of the Congressional Budget Office and various government funding agencies, and Lubchenco was suddenly being asked to make presentations on ecology to members of Congress and the Administration.

Engaging with society. For Lubchenco, the experience of conveying scientific information to government officials highlighted the importance of training scientists to communicate with nonscientists. To provide such training, she helped create the Leopold Leadership Program for midcareer environmental scientists as well as COMPASS, an organization that coaches and empowers environmental researchers to become better communicators and connects them with journalists, politicians, and business leaders.

Lubchenco Lasts

On to Washington. Lubchenco became more involved in bringing together the scientific community, engaging with individuals within the US government, and testifying before various congressional committees. Then, in 2008, she received a call from President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, asking if she would become the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “After multiple conversations from Tasmania, where I was doing research, the head of the transition team called and asked me to fly to Chicago to meet with the president.” She accepted the position and spent four years in Washington, DC, while Menge managed the OSU laboratory they shared. Despite the lagging economy at the time, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, and some of the most extreme weather on record, as well as a “partisan-heavy and legislation-light” four years, her tenure saw the accomplishment of many of the items on her and NOAA’s to-do list. A major success entailed slashing overfishing and returning US fisheries to sustainability and profitability. NOAA also played a key role in creating the first-ever national ocean policy, established by executive order in 2010 with “A Healthy Ocean Matters” as the core message. Also under Lubchenco’s administration, the role of science was strengthened, and NOAA created a robust Scientific Integrity Policy.

Congress as classroom. While asking Congress for money to fund a new NOAA weather and environmental satellite and conveying the importance of these satellites as a source of vital weather information, Lubchenco was told by a congressman, “I don’t need your weather satellites, I have the Weather Channel,” not understanding that the Weather Channel relies on NOAA satellites for its weather information. At a different hearing, Lubchenco, rather than simply giving Congress members an oral briefing on global warming and related ocean acidification, demonstrated the phenomenon by adding calcium carbonate, which makes up the bulk of coral, sea stars, and urchins, to water, a solution of water plus vinegar, or vinegar alone. “It’s much more powerful to see the same substance that makes up the coral and other marine animals dissolve in an acidic solution.”

Sustainable ocean fishing advocate. Although Lubchenco is now back running a joint ecology lab at OSU with her husband, she is still involved in projects aimed at understanding how to “use the ocean without using it up,” she says. Such projects include supporting sustainable fisheries, improving aquaculture, and establishing protected marine areas. Lubchenco is currently advising on a project known as Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS), which aims to make fisheries and aquaculture more sustainable. “This is a collaboration between scientists and businesses. It is an opportunity for corporate leaders to understand the implications of climate change, ocean acidification, and overfishing for their businesses. It’s an opportunity for them to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. They have power to address destructive practices and be champions for policies that improve ocean health.”

Unique education. “I was exposed to the different ecological world views at the three graduate schools I attended, each of which had distinct views and programs. As I look back, this was extremely valuable, because I ended up with a much broader view of what ecology is and how to do it.”

An evolution. “I went from someone who just taught and did research to someone who began to engage more with society; then from leading other scientists to being a civil servant and policymaker; and then to being an international diplomat. . . . Science must be embedded in society and be its partner. Science can’t tell society what to do. We must work together to identify problems and find solutions.” 

Correction: The article has been corrected to state that the National Science Board is associated with the National Science Foundation, not the National Academy of Sciences. The Scientist regrets the error.

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