The Natural
Jane Lubchenco’s ability to bring real-world approaches to scientific inquiry led her to become the first woman director of NOAA

In a slim, 36-page typescript thesis submitted for her UW master’s degree in zoology in 1971, Jane Lubchenco recounts her efforts to document the eating habits of two species of sea star, Pisaster ochraceous and Leptasterias hexactis. For a full year, she painstakingly counted and measured barnacles, mussels, snails, and limpets taken by the predatory sea stars at Point Caution, a jetty of rock on the eastern side of San Juan Island.

Pisaster can grow larger, which should make it the superior competitor, but Lubchenco found that when size is equal, Leptasterias is better at catching nutritionally dense prey. The results explain nothing less than, as Lubchenco writes, “How does Leptasterias manage to exist at all?”

This attention to detail and willingness to tackle the big questions, leavened with what her former adviser and UW Professor Emeritus of Zoology Robert Paine calls “a lot of charisma,” have vaulted Lubchenco to the top of her profession as a marine ecologist. These qualities have made her an effective advocate for greater scientific engagement with policymakers and the general public, and led President Barack Obama to nominate her to be the first female administrator (and ninth overall) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where she has served since March 2009. They also explain why Jane Lubchenco is UW’s Alumna Summa Laude Dignata for 2011. It is the highest honor an alumnus can receive from the University.

Lubchenco arrived in Seattle in the fall of 1969, having chosen to study at the UW “for its stellar reputation in marine biology and ecology,” she says. Initially, she was interested in animal physiology, but coursework and impassioned conversations among fellow graduate students introduced her to what was then the next big thing in ecology—combining real-world experiments and an understanding of evolutionary theory to figure out how natural communities work. “I was very quickly caught up in that new approach,” Lubchenco recalls. “The real excitement was the power of using rocky seashores to gain insights into general ecological world principles”—hence her thesis on resource use and competition in sea stars.

The abstract of that thesis includes the citation “Menge, pers. comm.,” or personal communication—scientific convention for when a colleague tells you something important that hasn’t been formally written about and published yet. It’s a hint at one of ecology’s most fruitful and long-lasting collaborative relationships. Bruce Menge is Lubchenco’s husband; the two met as graduate students at UW, where Menge was also working on sea stars. “Bruce was doing his field work, so I would often go out and be a field assistant for him initially, and then when I started doing my research he would reciprocate,” Lubchenco recalls.

After Menge received his Ph.D. in 1972, the team continued their studies of rocky intertidal habitats in New England (Menge taught at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and Lubchenco earned a Ph.D. from Harvard), having learned something about resource partitioning from the species they were studying. “They began to divide up the organic kingdom,” Paine observes, with Lubchenco focusing on seaweeds and herbivores like snails, and Menge on predators such as sea stars.

In 1977, the pair negotiated a groundbreaking arrangement that gave them each a half-time professorship at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Lubchenco still considers this one of her proudest achievements. “Both of us wanted to spend time with our kids that we wanted to have, and both of us wanted to continue to teach and do research,” she says. “I think there need to be more choices in how people—both men and women—can combine family and career.”

Since then, Lubchenco has authored some of the world’s most frequently cited papers in marine ecology, and along with Menge launched PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, a long-term effort to map intertidal communities from Mexico to Alaska and the climate cycles that affect them. The project was instrumental in, for example, identifying the Oregon dead zone, a summertime upwelling of oxygen-poor water that affects many coastal species, such as Dungeness crab. Julia Parrish, UW professor of fishery and aquatic sciences, calls the discovery “first-rate science” with enormous practical importance, typical of Lubchenco’s engagement with real-world problems.

Though Lubchenco has taught at the same institution for more than 30 years and has been studying rocky intertidal habitats for more than 40, she is by no means a sessile organism (meaning “rooted in one place”). She has served as president of the Ecological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1998, she founded the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, which trains ecologists to communicate with the policymakers and the media. “She has played an enormous role in getting all sorts of folks to daylight their science in ways that both their kids and their grandparents can understand,” says Parrish.

As NOAA Administrator, Lubchenco is in charge of nearly 13,000 employees and a $4.7 billion budget that encompasses everything from regulating ocean-bottom fisheries to predicting hurricanes. The job is in many ways the logical conclusion of Lubchenco’s advocacy for scientists to engage in public policy debates. And there have been public policy debates aplenty: fisheries management, climate change, and the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year, to name just a few.

Lubchenco gets things done. “We’ve been working on so many different things,” she says. She has championed a proposal to establish a National Climate Service, modeled on the National Weather Service; was instrumental in developing the first National Ocean Policy, an Executive Order issued by President Obama last summer; and is currently engaged in a campaign to emphasize the importance of weather satellites.

Lubchenco says that she has been gratified to hear NOAA employees’ enthusiasm at having a scientist head the agency. Many of Lubchenco’s academic colleagues share those sentiments. “The more scientists, particularly those of her caliber and leadership,” says Paine, who are willing to “involve themselves politically at the level she’s at, the better.”
—Sarah DeWeerdt is a frequent contributor to Columns

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