The call of the ocean

Department head Ann Bucklin speaks with us about marine science education for undergraduates, new hiring plans and how the sea grabbed her.

Ann Bucklin Photography by Daniel Buttrey

The Department of Marine Sciences includes biologists, physicists, chemists and geologists, and also practitioners of specialized fields such as marine genomics, marine meteorology and ocean optics. How does this interdisciplinary nature enrich your department?

In addition to our shared love of the sea, we all share a genuine appreciation for the joys of interdisciplinary research, scholarship, and teaching.  We purposefully try not to put up brick walls between people in different disciplines, and we actively look for people who can transcend the disciplinary boundaries.  Investigations at the interfaces of the traditional disciplines are hugely important in oceanography now; this is where the research investments are being made – and are really paying off – to generate new discoveries, new knowledge, and new understanding to help us meet the major environmental challenges facing the oceans today.

Quite unusually in the ocean sciences, our research and our curricula are interwoven with the social sciences.  Our undergraduate students can choose from an array of social science courses, including marine- and maritime-related courses offered by other CLAS departments, e.g., geography, economics, history, anthropology and political science. Our goal is to give our majors real appreciation for the past, present and future roles of humans in the ocean ecosystem.

Your position at the Avery Point campus must make it easy to create human-ocean connections.

In fact, there is no way to leave humans out of the equation in studies of the coastal ocean, which is our focus.  It helps that we are perched on the shores of Long Island Sound and the Marine Sciences Building looks like a ship in dry-dock – just about ready to launch!   More importantly, our focus on the coastal ocean and coastal marine ecosystems means that understanding human impacts is absolutely essential.  Long Island Sound is one of the most urbanized estuaries in the US, but we have indelibly and irreversibly shaped the landscape, life, and dynamics of our coastal regions throughout the world.

Marine Sciences has been approved for three new hires in this coming year. What kinds of researchers will you be looking for?

We will take advantage of the exceptional opportunity for a cluster faculty hire to expand our focus on climate science. The theme for our cluster hire is, “Climate and Human Alteration of Coastal Ecosystems” or CHACE.  We have a shopping list of possible positions spanning the underlying disciplines of marine sciences, but our goal is to identify new faculty members who can move us to a new level in interdisciplinary studies of the coastal ocean.  These may include a biogeochemical modeler, someone who studies marine food webs, or someone who studies storm events – it is exciting time for the department!

What role does teaching play in your department?

We’ve been really successful in recruiting world-class researchers who love teaching undergraduates. We’ve hired seven new faculty in the last seven years, and they’re all outstanding teachers. Heidi Dierssen, for example, who teaches “Introduction to Oceanography” to non-majors, routinely gets emails from her students saying, “You’ve changed my outlook on science and my career.”

Although most of our graduate students go on to academics, we also make sure to provide them with mentorship to guide them to any of the many careers that an advanced degree in oceanography prepares them for, whether in academia, government, nonprofit or corporate consulting jobs.

How did you get involved in marine science?

The reason most oceanographers I know do what they do is because at some point, the sea captured them. That’s what happened to me. I took a course in marine biology in my junior year at Oberlin. A scholarship to a summer course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole closed the deal. My PhD research was done in the intertidal zone of northern California – I spent five years in hip boots in the surf in the middle of the night, collecting sea anemones. I loved (almost) every minute of it (except the monster rats), and thought that’s what I would do for the rest of my life.

Then in 1980, I went to sea for the first time. That’s what turned me into an oceanographer,

Whether it’s as a kid going on a sailboat, or on an ocean cruise, or doing a school activity like Project Oceanology – every marine scientist has had that moment when the sea got them and they decided they had to keep doing that, keep going back to sea.

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