A marine biologist through the tides of life

June 8th is World Oceans Day. For this occasion, DiscovHER features a renown marine biologist, Nancy Knowlton, who is devoted to protect the multitude of life-forms that call the sea home.

As a child I was allowed to wander and wonder on the seashore, and I’ve spent my career doing much the same. When I look back over the last forty-plus years, I am struck by how my research has been shaped by chance events and odd bits of information.

In 1974, I took a summer graduate course on the biology and geology of Jamaican coral reefs. Within weeks, I was hooked by their warm waters and dazzling beauty. I spent six hours ever day under water for an entire year, collecting data but also looking and thinking. The shrimp species I had chosen to study turned out to be four, my first lesson on the importance of not accepting blindly what the literature says.

In 1980, shortly after taking my first job as an assistant professor at Yale, Hurricane Allen shattered the reefs of Jamaica and changed my course as well. I couldn’t ignore this massive natural experiment that was not part of any plan, and began what we thought would be a study of reef recovery. But the reefs didn’t recover, which led to a life-long interest in why some coral populations collapse and other don’t.

Time spent staring at corals also caused me to wonder whether corals, like shrimp, had lots of undiscovered species (yes, they do). One Japanese researcher working with me on this problem returned from visits home with samples of Pacific corals that should have been related to Caribbean corals we were studying. Their genes stubbornly told a different story that ultimately reshaped the coral family tree. Collecting DNA from coral sperm led to many night dives studying the spectacle of mass spawning.

Forays into coral biology also introduced me to scientists working on microbes that live inside corals. Preliminary analyses showed that microbes from a handful of deeper water samples were different. A small clue, perhaps chance, but we pursued it. Now many laboratories study the staggering microbial diversity that shapes the ability of corals to adapt to global change.

Meanwhile, I never abandoned my love of shrimp. During fourteen years at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, I explored their genetics to tackle a long-standing question about how the rise of the Isthmus of Panama divided one ocean and one set of species into two. On a field trip, my daughter and I and nine others were taken hostage during the US invasion of Panama in 1989, fortunately with no ill effects.

My work on diversity continues to this day, as powerful new genetic methods allow us to sequence the DNA not just of shrimp and corals, but of all the organisms in a coral reef “milkshake”. The potential for monitoring biodiversity in a changing world cheaply and quickly is enormous.

But I also never forgot the lesson of the collapse of Jamaican reefs. After arriving at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1998, I established a new graduate program aimed at solving the problems the ocean faces. I found my public voice, speaking at venues around the world about threats to ocean health.

Coming to the National Museum of Natural History in 2007 provided me with a wonderful opportunity to mix scientific research and communication. I wrote Citizens of the Sea and then adopted Twitter (@seacitizens) as a platform for sharing my fascination with ocean life. Since 2012, I have led the Ocean Portal website (ocean.si.edu).

My public talks have moved from doom and gloom to hope. Recent cruises to the remote and thriving reefs of the Central Pacific have reminded me that local protection can buy us valuable time while we struggle to meet the challenge of climate change. I was privileged to present this message at the Vatican in 2014, and soon afterwards helped launch #OceanOptimism to share stories of success in ocean conservation.

Are there lessons from this career of mine for young marine biologists, particularly women? There have long been many women who enter this field as graduate students, but women become scarcer at senior levels. It is sadly still true that at times women are overlooked and under-appreciated. There is no one way to avoid this fate, but I would recommend the following: Stay true to yourself and follow your passions. Pursue the unexpected result and take advantage of unplanned opportunities. Keep your horizons broad by working with colleagues with different skills and interests. Finally, communicate clearly and not just within academia – there’s a world out there that needs you.  

Photo Credit: Christian Ziegler

For Women in Science

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