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Q&A: Edith Widder, MacArthur Fellow

Kilroys sensors can shed light on undersea world
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By Lisa Capone

PHOTO: TOM SMOYER
Edith Widder enters the Johnson-Sea-Link submersible, which can descend 3,000 feet. She has made more than 250 dives to date.

Edith Widder has spent much of her career researching creatures that illuminate the ocean's murky depths. Now she's on a quest to shed some light of her own.

Widder, 55, recently co-founded the non-profit Ocean Research & Conservation Association, which is dedicated to revealing a clearer picture of how human activity harms oceans worldwide and sharing that knowledge to build public support for marine conservation. The association is developing high-tech sensors called “Kilroys” that will one day be coupled with the Sensor Web geographic information system developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

An adjunct senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine, Widder earned her bachelor's degree in biology at Tufts University, and holds a master's in biochemistry and a doctorate in neurobiology from the University of California in Santa Barbara. She received a five-year, $500,000 genius award last September from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Q: Were you always interested in studying the ocean?
A: I love animals. As soon as I knew what the word biologist meant, I knew I wanted to be a biologist. But then when I looked at what was under the water, I became even more hooked and decided I wanted to be a marine biologist.

Q: How did you come to study bioluminescence?
A: After my Ph.D. work, I got a chance to go down in a submersible. I knew the statistics about the number of animals in the ocean that could make light, but actually seeing it with my own eyes changed the course of my career. I decided that bioluminescence has got to be one of the most important processes in the ocean. I couldn't understand why there weren't more people studying it.

Q: Why weren't they?
A: I concluded it was because there wasn't the instrumentation to do it. That's how I have tried to address these issues [by developing instruments capable of studying bioluminescent animals].

Q: When did you found the Ocean Research & Conservation Association?
A: We founded it a year ago. It was actually Charlie Yentsch, founder and senior research scientist at Bigelow Labs in Maine, who challenged us to do this. With Charlie's encouragement, I partnered with Keith Paglen [now chief executive officer of the association], who is a corporate environmentalist, and we are attempting to meet this enormous challenge of what has been put before us: to strengthen science by providing improved monitoring of the ocean and enhancing ocean education to advance stewardship.

Q: What kind of work is the Ocean Research & Conservation Association doing?
A: In terms of monitoring, we are developing low-cost, ecosystem-based, water quality sensors called Kilroys. They are wireless, so there is not a lot of infrastructure that needs to be installed before you start getting data.

Q: Have you started deploying them?
A: They are in the prototype stage right now. They will be deployed this summer. Our long-term vision is to have these operating in estuaries and bays up and down the East and West Coasts and then eventually worldwide. We need to make people aware of what's going on. We want to do things [with data] like transparent overlays on satellite imagery [e.g., Google Earth] that can monitor water quality in real time. With our Kilroys we'll have a powerful monitoring tool in our coastal zones. In the past, most monitoring has relied on hand sampling. But due to tides and currents, a single water sample taken once a week is not very useful in terms of what's really going on. The Kilroys will attach to any existing structure (e.g., piers and buoys) and be able to report back through cell phone technology, minute to minute.

Q: What will they measure?
A: In general, they will evaluate water quality, with specific measurements of salinity, temperature, wave heights and tidal flow, flow direction, turbidity and bioluminescence. Bioluminescence is actually a measure of life. So we will be doing real-time monitoring of living things in the environment - something that has never been done like this before. I think that's going to be a huge step forward.

Q: How many species are bioluminescent, and why?
A: If you go out and drag a net almost anywhere in the world from 1,000 meters (1,093 yards) to the surface, 80 to 90 percent of the animals you bring up in that net are bioluminescent. They use light to find food, to attract mates and to defend against predators.

Q: Is bioluminescence more common in certain regions?
A: In coastal waters, probably only about 10 percent of the species are bioluminescent. However, those few species can be present in very large numbers. It's far more common in the open ocean. The open ocean is the largest ecosystem in the world, so I would argue that bioluminescence may be the most common form of communication on the planet. Yet most people are unaware of it.

Q: What is your biggest challenge at the Ocean Research & Conservation Association?
A: The biggest challenge is getting the infrastructure set up, and fundraising is a huge part of it. Twenty-five years ago, 7 percent of the national scientific research budget went to marine science; now it's only 3.5 percent, at a time when the oceans have never needed help more. Less than 1 percent of the not-for-profit funds spent for conservation studies go to marine conservation. We have this tremendous crisis. Yet people go through their lives very comfortably, unaware that this is an ocean planet. We take the best things out of the ocean and we put in our worst things. It's catching up with us.

Q: What can people do?
A: I tell people to support ocean conservation organizations. More than anything right now, we need financial help. We have enormous capability to be addressing these issues. We just don't have the awareness of how critical it is. I am dismayed at the number of talented marine biologists who have given up. There just isn't the grant support they need to carry out their research.

Q: What was it like receiving a MacArthur Fellowship?
A: It was out of the blue and it couldn't have come at a better time for us. It's more than just the money. It's this stamp of approval that gives us entrée to many organizations that might not have taken us seriously at the outset because we are so new. We estimate it's accelerated our time line by two to three years.

Q: How is your work being applied to the Gulf of Maine?
A: Right now, we are concentrating on developing the Kilroys. A lot of it is going to depend on our ability to raise funds to get them out there. We'll be working with anyone and everyone to make that happen. Bigelow Labs has done extensive monitoring in the Gulf of Maine, and, given my adjunct status there, I intend to work with them to install one of the nation's first Kilroy systems.

For more information email inquiries@oceanrecon.org or visit the Ocean Research & Conservation Association Web site at http://www.oceanrecon.org/.

Lisa Capone is a free-lance writer in Melrose, Massachusetts, who specializes in science and the environment.

2007 The Gulf of Maine Times