Skip to main content
You are here

New Bodega Lab Director Turns a Love of the Ocean into her Life's Work

By News and Media Relations on September 29, 2000 in University News

Susan Williams looked to science to solve vexing problems at an early age.

Once she tried to make her pesky little sister disappear with a potion of household chemicals. She experimented with various formulas on safety pins, keeping careful notes on each experiment.

The concoction turned out to be a poor disappearing agent but a great insect repellent, and that was a useful lesson.

"I learned that most experiments fail, but you can discover something else in the process," Williams said.

Raised near Chesapeake Bay, Williams also loved the ocean. "As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated by its power, by the stuff that got washed up on the beach," she said. "I never deviated from that."

Those twin loves of science and the sea led her to oceanography and now to UC Davis. An authority on shallow-water marine ecosystems, Williams is the new director of Bodega Marine Laboratory, one of UC Davis' organized research units. She came from San Diego State University, where she was a professor of biology and director of the Coastal & Marine Institute.

Williams is an expert in understanding the nutrient cycles, plant-animal interactions and restoration genetics biology of near-shore marine communities, particularly seagrasses, seaweeds and coral reefs. She frequently is asked to advise policy-makers and resource managers on preserving and restoring marine ecosystems.

"She is a really fine experimental ecologist," said Rick Grosberg, a UC Davis professor of evolution and ecology and director of the Center for Population Biology. Grosberg studies the biology of clonal animals, such as sea anemones, at the Bodega laboratory.

"She also has a long history of integrating basic research with applied research. And while those both have been elements of research programs at the Bodega marine lab, there has not been a history of integration. She will help to put the lab on the map as a leader in ecological research at the land-sea interface."

A career on the water

Since earning a doctorate in botany and marine biology at the University of Maryland in 1981, Williams has taught and conducted research at major marine laboratories in Alaska, Hawaii, New England, Texas, Wa-

shington, the Caribbean, Japan and California. She has lived aboard research ships, scuba-dived, traveled to 3,000 feet in a submersible vessel and lived and conducted research in an undersea habitat for four weeks.

Her career has been distinguished. When she earned her master's degree at the University of Alaska in 1977, faculty members named her the Outstanding Student in Oceanography. At San Diego State in 1993, students named her Outstanding Biology Faculty Member.

She served that same year on a panel of eminent-scientists appointed by the assistant secretary of the Interior, and this year is a fellow in the Aldo Leopold Fellowship in Environmental Leadership.

Besides her strengths as a researcher, Williams brings experience and skills needed to run the complex Bodega laboratory, Grosberg said. Before heading the San Diego marine institute, she was science director of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's National Undersea Research Program in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"She is a great listener and peacemaker," Grosberg said. "She has integrity and compassion. But she's very forthright and candid. She's a leader. People respect her."

"Susan has ambitious and creative plans for enhancing the laboratory's research mission," added Mark McNamee, dean of the Division of Biological Sciences. "And she has a strong desire to increase the interactions between the main campus and the laboratory. I look forward to working with her to expand the opportunities for faculty members and students."

Life at the bay

Located on the Pacific coast about 21/2 hours' drive west of Davis, Bodega Marine Laboratory is itself a small campus, with endless management challenges. The physical plant is under constant assault by corrosive salt air, winds, cold and fog. The work force includes six faculty members, 11 staff researchers, 110 other staff employees and 21 volunteer docents who last year led 10,000 people (half of them K-12 students) on lab tours.

Financial support includes $2.6 million for operating costs from the university and, in the past year, $6 million in grants and contracts. A large group of Bodega scientists, including Williams, just won $6 million more in a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish a western center for estuarine health.

The lab facilities include a lecture hall, offices, laboratories supported by a world-class seawater circulation system, a diver-education program and student housing.

Oh, and a field site as big as the ocean, just steps away.

"What struck me when I first came to Bodega Marine Lab was what an incredible research setting it occupied," Williams said. "Here on Bodega Head, we stick way out into the Pacific Ocean. The environment is battered by waves and wind and is very marine-dominated.

"Then, if you go down the coast a bit to Tomales Bay, you have a fairly pristine marine habitat, with some mussel aquaculture, surrounded by agriculture. So it's slightly more human- and land-influenced. Farther south there is San Francisco Bay, which is totally land- and human-influenced.

"That gradient, with the lab at one end of it, is a terrific research opportunity for marine ecology and environmental marine science"----perhaps the one area that the Bodega lab has not maximized, Williams said.

"California and the nation are faced with incredible environmental problems in the marine area, including overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and invasive species. UC Davis is uniquely poised to be a world leader in providing the scientific basis to help solve those problems," Williams said.

"It is the leader in U.S. academics in ecology studies right now. And we have the location, faculty, collaborations with state and federal agencies and the history of the agricultural experiment station, which deals with environmental issues and management," she said. "Finally, we have very high quality graduate students who have a keen interest in working on these issues."

The challenges ahead

Already, change is under way. This fall, the campus's Graduate Group in Ecology added a new area of emphasis: marine ecology. Some classes for that degree will be taught at Bodega.

And it's time for the lab to conduct the required five-year update of its academic plan.

"This is the chance for the faculty to build their vision for the lab," Williams said.

As Dean McNamee noted, Williams hopes to spend time on the main Davis campus, urging more faculty members to consider Bodega as a research resource.

"People often think of marine laboratories as summer camps. They're not," she said.

"I would invite anybody on campus to come out and get a feel for the size of the operation."

Categories