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Biogeochemist Kenneth Coale Dies at 67

He was known for his research on iron’s role in phytoplankton biomass.

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter

Lisa Winter became social media editor for The Scientist in 2017. In addition to her duties on social media platforms, she also pens obituaries for the website. She graduated from Arizona State University, where she studied genetics, cell, and developmental biology.

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Kenneth Coale, a beloved professor who once directed the San José State University-affiliated Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, died on July 11 at the age of 67 of a sudden aortic tear, according to an announcement from the facility. 

Kenneth Coale
Kenneth Coale
Moss Landing Marine Laboratories

Coale was born on January 24, 1955, in New York City, though he grew up in the mountainous Portola Valley, California. His mother was an educator and his father, an engineer, sparked his love of science and spending time outdoors from an early age, according to an obituary from the family, with camping and rock climbing among their favorite group activities. 

He began his undergraduate studies at the nearby University of California (UC), Santa Cruz, in 1974, where he studied biology and met his future wife, Susan, in an organic chemistry class. He stayed at the university to work after graduation, becoming immersed in research on the radionuclides and trace metals of the ocean. He continued this line of work for many years before going back to school, and he ultimately received his PhD from UC Santa Cruz in 1988.

He stayed in the Monterey Bay area and came to Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML) as a postdoc that same year. Coale’s research there largely centered on “the iron hypothesis,” which explains how the bioavailability of iron affects phytoplankton growth, effectively acting like a fertilizer in the ocean. By learning more about how iron and other trace elements affect the ecosystem, scientists can better predict how those systems will be affected by climate change.

Disaster hit in 1989 when an earthquake decimated the laboratory, and insult was added to injury when efforts to fundraise and rebuild were politicized, threatening the viability of the facility’s future, according to his obituary. MLML temporarily took up residence in a series of trailers in 1991 until the main facility was rebuilt and opened back up in 2000. Coale assumed a leadership role in 1992 and became well-known for his high standards and fierce dedication to MLML. Ivano Aiello, interim director of MLML, tells The Scientist that Coale was “instrumental” in maintaining the lab’s independence and growth.

Coale’s dedication to MLML never wavered, even after he retired from his role as MLML director in 2011: He stayed on as head of the chemical oceanography laboratory until 2018.

“He always had a very clever and beguiling way of interacting, especially in difficult conversations,” James Harvey tells The Scientist. Harvey became the director of MLML after Coale stepped down. “Even if you did not agree with his position, you always appreciated his intellect, his empathetic approach, and his measured and respectful tone.”

Coale became a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2014. “It is truly an honor for our little institution in Moss Landing to be recognized by such a prominent and respected scientific body,” he told SJSU News at the time. 

In 2018, Coale retired from MLML as professor emeritus. A speech at his retirement party recalled times when Coale looked out for students in a number of ways, from his dedication to ensuring students succeeded in class, to providing extra clothing on a boat trip, to taking in students who were temporarily homeless.

After Coale’s retirement, he became a dedicated volunteer for California State Parks in the Santa Cruz area, according to a Facebook tribute. As news of his death spread across social media, former students and colleagues shared memories of him as a devoted mentor and friend.

“Kenneth’s legacy is strong, and as constant new challenges are facing us we are still a tight community,” Aiello adds, stating that MLML has a “profound sense of identity and we stay focused on Kenneth's original mission” to serve the next generation of marine scientists.

He is survived by his wife Susan, their two children, one daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren.

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