In a slim, typewritten 36-page 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 Professor Emeritus of Biology Robert Paine calls “a lot of charisma,” have vaulted Lubchenco to the top of her profession as a marine ecologist, made her an effective advocate for greater scientific engagement with policymakers and the general public, and led President Barak Obama to nominate her to become the first female administrator 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.
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Lubchenco arrived on campus in the fall of 1969, having chosen graduate study at 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 soon 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 in that group 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.
Along the way Lubchenco met her husband, Bruce Menge, who was also working on sea stars at the UW. “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 doctorate 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 doctorate from Harvard).
“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. “That was a sensible split, both tactically in terms of how you study these systems, but it also gave them their own space.”
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.
During the same time, 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 policymakers and the media.
As NOAA administrator, Lubchenco is in charge of nearly 13,000 employees and a $4.7 billion dollar budget. 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 her 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.”