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Deborah joined Bigelow Laboratory in February 2018 as its president and CEO. Her expertise is in marine-estuarine and environmental sciences. Deborah... ...has conducted more than 50 research cruises and field studies in freshwater and marine environments from pole to pole. ...previously served as division director for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Science and as president of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography. ...was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and recognized for her substantial research advances on the marine nitrogen cycle and for leadership in the ocean science research community in December 2020. ...was elected president of The Oceanography Society in 2021. B.S., Biology and Marine Science, University of Miami Ph.D, Marine Estuarine and Environmental Sciences, University of Maryland

Interview Transcript

Lucas Richman interviewed Dr. Deborah Bronk, President, and CEO of Bigelow Laboratory of Ocean Sciences for The Warming Sea project. 

Recorded July 30, 2019. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Lucas Richman: Dr. Brock, thank you so much for inviting me to Bigelow Laboratory. What an amazing place; could you please tell me a little bit about what you do here?

Deborah Bronk: Bigelow Laboratory was established in 1974, and at Bigelow we are known primarily for studying the base of the ocean food web - the microbes. Take a deep breath; half of the oxygen you just breathed in and came from the ocean and it was the microbes that produced it. That's what we study.

LR: Ok, I have a question. All of this is being filtered through a creative process, because I'm about to write a work that is all about the effects that climate change is having on the Eastern seaboard. So I'm thinking of it in terms of, how can I take the information that you have - and your colleagues - and put that into a creative expression of not only what is going on, but maybe there's change that we can affect over time. So one of the questions that's been kind of in the back of my mind, is when you speak about the oxygen being created in the ocean, are the effects that we're experiencing with a warming sea coming from the air and perhaps the plastics and all the debris that's in the ocean? What is causing the warming of the ocean?

DB: What's causing the warming of the ocean is that if you warm the atmosphere above the ocean, the ocean and the atmosphere are in equilibrium with each other, and the ocean will warm because the atmosphere is warmer. Also solar radiation is going to warm the ocean. And what's happening with the overarching issue with global warming right now is that through the industrial revolution, we have been taking huge amounts of carbon buried in the ground and we burn it. And when we burn it, it turns into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; that's the end product. And it's thickening that blanket all around the planet and that's warming up the air and it's warming up the ocean because more of that radiation coming in from the sun is being retained within this atmospheric blanket. In terms of plastics, they're not really contributing to the warming, but they're another product of the whole petroleum-based economy. Because plastic is really just solid petroleum products.

LR: I guess I know it affects the oceanic life, but I didn't know it was affecting the actual production of oxygen in the ocean yet, if it was that much of an issue?

DB: Okay, well, let me think about this for a minute. Does plastic affect ocean production? So, plastics in the ocean have a lot of negative effects. It doesn't directly impact oxygen, however. On the other hand in localized environments, say if you've seen any pictures of areas in the South Pacific, there are lagoons and bays and rivers completely covered with plastic. So that's just cutting off gas exchange. That, localized, is going to cause a lot of problems. It would be a regional issue. 

LR: Your emphasis, I understand, is in nitrogen….

DB: The best element in the world!

LR: Could you tell me why, and what is it about nitrogen that’s part of this whole thing?

DB: So, if you want to make a phytoplankton cell - and these are the guys that are making the oxygen - you need nitrogen. And if you want to know how much productivity, which is how fast they grow, how fast these cells can grow in the ocean, you need to know how much nitrogen is coming into the water. We all require nitrogen, right? So we get it from the food we eat; phytoplankton and microbes, bacteria in the ocean get it - it's dissolved in the water and they bring it in through their cell membranes. In the coastal zone, it can cause all kinds of problems, right? So I don't know if you've seen any of the blooms, massive, harmful algal blooms down in Florida. That's a function of all this nitrogen that's going into the water.

LR: So it’s the overabundance.  How does there become an overabundance of nitrogen?

DB: Sewage treatment plants; overland runoff. The classic place where this comes into play, which also ties into oxygen, is in the Gulf of Mexico. The whole central part of the United States is our breadbasket, right? In order to grow all of those various crops, we put nitrogen fertilizer on the soil. The main thing they're adding there is nitrogen - also a little bit of phosphorus, but they're adding nitrogen. Any of that nitrogen that doesn't get used up, it gets washed into the river, which gets washed into the ocean. And if you have too much nitrogen, the cells kind of go crazy. There's too many cells there - phytoplankton cells - for what the system can handle. And the problem, and where it ties into oxygen, is when they die, they sink to the bottom and then the bacteria decompose them. Now, phytoplankton, if you're a phytoplankton cell, you take up carbon dioxide and you make oxygen. If you're a bacteria, the guys that are decomposing all the dead stuff, you take up oxygen and you give off carbon dioxide. And it's when you grow too many cells in an area, and then bacteria are decomposing all that when they die, that you get these dead zones, because they've used up all the oxygen that's down there. And one of the implications of warming is that warm water can just hold less gas than cold water. And you could see that as your Coke warms up. It gets flatter, right? Because all the bubbles are coming out because as it warms up, it just can't hold as much of that carbonation. Same thing in the water. So as it warms up, you're holding less gas. And phytoplankton are growing and dying and decomposing. And all of this is getting kind of speeded up and it's using that more oxygen. So low oxygen is actually a big impact of a warming planet.

LR: You mentioned phytoplankton. For those of us who are not so well versed in the differentiation between plankton and phyto, what is the difference between regular plankton?

DB: Plankton just means that it's an organism that can't control its distribution in the water; it floats with the currents. Some plankton can have little flagella or something, they can move a little bit, but in general, they are just at the whims of the current. They tend to be very small, but if you've ever seen one of those big ocean sunfish, they're really weirdly shaped - they are plankton. They can't control their distribution; they're really weird beasts. So plankton just means you're moving around. Phytoplankton: phyto is plant. So these are plankton that act like plants. They have chlorophyll and pigments just like the plants outside the building. And they take up energy from the sun and that's how they grow and thrive. So that's the phyto.

LR: Ok. So for the uneducated - that means me - when a whale is consuming plankton, what kind of plankton? Or is that what happens?

DB: They do consume plankton. So they tend to consume the level up from the phytoplankton. So they eat what eats the phytoplankton. In the Gulf, much of what they eat in the Gulf of Maine are copepods. They're like the cows of the sea is one way to think about it. So if the phytoplankton are the grass, right? So those are these microscopic plants. And then you've got the little copepods, and copepods look like a grain of sand with big antennae. That's kind of their general shape. And you can see them, if you have a glass of water, seawater, and you're lucky enough to catch one of these guys, you will see it darting around. They’re visible to the naked eye. And they have these feeding currents and they take up all these phytoplankton. They tend to have a lot of lipids and fats in them, so they're a really good food source. And it's those guys that the whales will screen out through their baleen to eat. Phytoplankton are really too small. They won't get caught on that baleen that most whales have.

LR: If the planet is covered - is it 70% water?

DB: The ocean is 70% of the planet.

LR: Okay. So with that, how much oxygen is created from the ocean relative to what's created on land with trees and that sort of thing? What is that balance?

DB: I think we're about 50%. 

LR:  With essentially a balance of oxygen being created in the ocean and on land, the things that we're doing -  I mean, I think our society is much more aware of the things that we're doing on the land that affects climate change. But what is it that we're doing in the ocean that is perhaps creating a detriment to the oxygen that's formed in the ocean?

DB: There's a number of different ways that mankind is exacerbating this oxygen problem. The main one is, we are adding huge amounts of nitrogen to the ocean, and we're adding it by fertilizing our lawns, fertilizing agricultural fields. There's just a lot of people. And a lot of people make a lot of waste and that waste has nitrogen. So it's coming in from wastewater treatment plants. It's coming in from untreated sewage in much of the world. We produce a lot of gaseous, nitrogen compounds through industry, and that rains down onto the ocean. So we are just adding a whole lot of nitrogen. Now, that's the food for phytoplankton. You make a lot of phytoplankton, eventually they're going to die. And when they die, they get consumed by bacteria. And it's the extent of the rapid growth of phytoplankton and the rapid decomposition that kind of throws the system out of whack. And the bacteria just use it all up. So they're in the water with the phytoplankton; they're using it all up. And then the other thing is, we are warming up the ocean and the ocean can hold less oxygen if it's warm. And the third thing that comes to mind is that, if you think about the ocean, there's this lit surface area that gets sunlight, and then there's this deep, dark ocean below it that's very cold. And mixing in the ocean is very important in terms of getting oxygen from the atmosphere and mixing it down into the water. That mixing is controlled by density. When you warm water up, it becomes less dense and it tends to stay at the surface. The warmer that surface layer gets, the harder it is to get it mixed down with that colder layer. And so one of the things we're doing globally as the ocean warms, we are making that surface layer warmer, and it's just harder for the wind - the wind has to be stronger to really mix that water up. And so we're not replenishing the oxygen in the surface ocean, in many parts of the world, the way we used to. And it's because of that density difference.

LR: So what I'm trying to do with the piece that I'm writing, is to fuse the scientific information with the creative process. Do you see a connection between the science you're involved in and the arts?

DB: Absolutely. In many ways. Right now I'm doing a strategic plan for the Institute. And as part of that plan, we're trying to set down some of what we consider are these guiding institutional principles. And our very first one is “great science is like great art. It can't be forced. It thrives in a creative environment where people are challenged, but really have the space to think.” So I think science and art are just two ends of the same piece. And one of the things that concerns me about this country is we are not investing in the humanities like we should be. And there are studies that have shown that great scientists are usually also artists or musicians. Developing that side of your brain, being exposed to the arts, helps scientists be more creative on the science side. And so if you cut that off, and putting all your money into science - which we love. Let's be really clear: we want money going into science. But you're cutting scientists off at the knees if you don't invest in the humanities. Because they really feed into each other. We at Bigelow, through our Director ofCommunications, Steven Profizer, he’s really been champion of trying to use the arts to help us get our message out. 

Everybody likes sharks; well people may not like sharks, but they want to hear about sharks. Everybody loves dolphins. We study the little guys that are so critical to this planet, and yet you can't see them. So how can we help people identify with these organisms that are so central to our existence? And so at Bigelow, we have a history of partnering with artists. We just have a new installation from Krissane Baker that was just put up about a month ago, where she worked with our culture collection and then using recovered glass, has made phytoplankton that is hanging in our common area now. So trying to use the arts as a way to allow people to relate to things they can't see. And I think one of the ways we are trying to get people to really engage with us. So I think art and science are incredibly important and they feed off of each other.

LR: And perhaps photography, - blowing up the photos that are taken of those small, small microbes so we can see what that actually looks like on that level.

DB: We have a series of photographs and electron micrographs. We call them Tiny Giants. They're on display right now at the Portland airport. And that exhibit has circulated around the state and the region. These things are gorgeous, right? You can't see them with the naked eye, but they are gorgeous when you look at them. It’s a whole other universe. And it's a completely different world as well because the physics are totally different. If you look at what these little guys do with their size and, and the viscosity or the thickness of water, they basically are living in jello. So it's a completely different world that these things experience, these organisms experience. They're fascinating.

LR: Can you tell me a little bit more about, perhaps, what's happening in Maine, in the state of Maine, that is unique to this area, as opposed to what other parts of the country are experiencing?

DB: So Maine is unique amongst much of the rest of the U.S,. and definitely very different from what I'm used to in Virginia, is that there were so few people in Maine. There's 1.1 million people approximately in the state of Maine, and yet it has this massive coastline. So because the population density isn't that great, we're not putting a lot of pollutants into the water, like the Southern states are doing where the population density is just so much higher. So Maine in many respects is still probably as pristine as you're going to get on the east coast of the U.S.,  where one of my concerns is, it's getting less pristine. I spent a decade studying harmful algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, and now we're starting to see some of those species in the Gulf of Maine. We're having shellfish closures now in the Gulf of Maine. So I think we're at a window in time in the state that we need to get ahead of these problems so that we don't turn into what some of these other states are facing.

LR: So are we, in a way, kind of with the last vestiges of a healthy ocean?

DB: Yes. I started in Key West and moved north, and I don't think you will find another place as undeveloped as you will see on the coast of Maine. So it's very valuable as a study site because it's like, this is what, this is what it looked like 200 years ago in many areas. It's not completely pristine, but it's as close as we have right now.

LR: Do you partner with comparable cities around the world? In terms of comparing the data for this region and on this part of the globe?

DB: Bigelow is basically a group of 20 scientists. Each one of those scientists is running their own laboratory and they have different expertise in different research programs. And depending on what they are working on -  we have some people that work on like Barney Balch, who does satellite oceanography it, and he is helping to ground-truth the satellite data products that NASA produces that are used by cities and countries all around the world. We have somebody like Nick Record, who's a mathematician by training and he uses citizen science to develop tools, and looking at data that he could compare with any other city in the world. Or they could look at his approaches and apply them in their own region in terms of forecasting, for example. So, that kind of stuff goes on; the ocean connects all the countries. We have programs and individual research programs that may partner with several countries. We have scientists here that are involved in large international programs that may bring together dozens of countries. That goes on all the time. That's one of the great things about ocean science. It's great for diplomacy because you’ve got to make it work. If you're going to really study the ocean, it doesn't stop at a national boundary….

LR: Or a state line… 

DB: Or a state line

LR: Are there things that you're seeing other countries do that are effective, that we could be doing here?

DB: I'm sure there are examples that are not coming to mind. The European countries, especially, I'd say on the Baltic and the Mediterranean, they are really tackling a lot of tough nutrient problems. I think we have an easier go here because we are a unified country. You still have to get a bunch of different states to buy-in. I mean, that's one of the challenges of…

LR: We’re not talking about International negotiations…

DB: And states are tough enough, right? Trying to get farmers in Pennsylvania that may have never been to the Chesapeake Bay to think deeply about how much fertilizer they applied to their fields, because a bunch of people outside of Washington, DC are being impacted.  So the ocean is a great integrator, and we've got these river systems and catchments that drain huge parts of the country. So is there an example of somewhere else that does this extremely well? Unfortunately, none is coming to mind because it's a tough problem.

LR: It sounds to me like one of our basic issues in effecting any kind of change is education. For instance you mentioned that farmer in Pennsylvania, that person's job is to create product and they're going to go about it the way that they are going to go about it, unless someone really educates them as to the negative impact they're having on the total environment. So how do we get that educational message across in such a way that people don't feel belittled and they feel like they're empowered and also continued to be as productive.

DB: You know, one of the great programs that the U.S. has, is we have these extension agents in the state. They are funded by the state and they will advise farmers. We have Marine extension here in Maine; in fact, I was just up in Orono at the University of Maine where the Maine Sea Grant office - Sea Grant is a national program that gives money to the states to address problems that they're having. And they work closely with Maine Extension. So if you're a kelp farmer and you're running into issues, you have somebody that you can turn to, and they're not part of any kind of industry. They are paid to advise you with the best science that we've got. And we need to expand that use. Because in reality, in the case of farmers - and I need to qualify this in that I haven't really been involved in those kinds of issues in probably a decade, so I don't know if things have changed. But the main people advising farmers are the people selling fertilizers and what do they want to do? They want to sell fertilizers. Now, if fertilizer is running off into the river and into the Chesapeake Bay, farmers are paying for something that is not benefiting their soils. If it was benefiting their soils they would stay there. So having these kinds of impartial… their only incentive is to try to get the best information out to you. And then the farmers can make their own decisions.

You wouldn't be putting so much fertilizer on. It's just a huge waste of money and oh, by the way, it's causing massive problems downstream. So I think expanding the U.S. tradition of trying to have these trained professionals that keep up on the latest science and then translate it to the people that need it, is a really powerful way to do business.

LR: So this might be a very big question. Is there something in very simple terms that we can do to affect change our ourselves on a daily basis? Or maybe I'll phrase the question a different way: what would you like to see happen in the next five, 10 years where the communities of Maine actually make a difference?

DB: Earlier you mentioned education, that's key. There are thousands of different things we can do to change our carbon footprint. I mean, if we want to stave off additional warming, we need to each reduce our carbon footprint, the amount of carbon we put out every day. I just gave a talk here; we have this cafe scientific series where we have the scientist talk to… I think we had 240 people, something like that that came. And we try to make it very accessible to the general public, and I talked about climate change. And one of the things I encourage them to do is Google “carbon footprint”. You will find a thousand different websites, or diagrams, figures, with all different ideas on how you can do this.  Pick the ones that make sense to you. Say, “this month I'm going to do three things a little differently that will reduce my carbon footprint.”  And pretty soon that will just be the way you do things.  If you're not using something that’s electronic, unplug it.  Even if it's not on, it is drawing current if it's plugged into the wall.  So just something as simple as in the morning, instead of turning off your coffee maker, unplug it from the wall.  And plug it in the next time you're going to use it.  If we all did that, that would cut down all this energy that we use that does nothing, right? Don't use plastic bags.  Plastic bags are made out of petroleum. When they get incinerated, that's more carbon into the atmosphere.  So bring your carry-on bags.  Not carry-on bags, that's for an airplane. But bring your bags to the grocery store. You can buy little fabric bags. When you go buy lettuce, instead of ripping off one of those things you can never open? Bring your fabric bag.  So there's tons of things you can do like that.  

Support continued development of renewable resources.  Solar, wind, tidal energy.  They said it's too expensive; we're never going to be able to make this cost-effective.  It's not true.  The price goes down and down and down.  Americans are smart.  We're scrappy.  You tell us we need to find a way to do it, we will do it.  You want cheap solar power?  We will do it.

LR: And in that way, it also becomes an industry where people are -- 

DB: Making money!

LR:   Making money.

DB: Making money; having jobs.

LR:  Exactly.

DB: You know, I don't subscribe to this idea that petroleum and the fossil fuel industry is bad and evil.  But it's the past.  We're Americans; let's lead the world into the future.  And the future is renewable.  In 20 years I want kids to be like, "What's an energy bill?  You had an electric bill you had to -- why would you pay for that?" So let's get that kind of mentality. That's what I would love to see.  But there are thousands of things you can do.  Google and just pick the ones, "Oh I can do that?  That's easy.  That's easy. That’s easy."

LR:   I love what you just said.  The element of 20 years down the line, that something that just sounds so… is the bane of our existence, that in the future could be like it doesn't even exist, and it's not part of our lexicon.  Are there other things that you would have on your wish list for us to be able to say "That's not a problem anymore.  I can't believe that you did that."  And if not, that’s okay.

DB: Oh, you know, having to stop at a gas station.  "What's a gas station?"

LR:   Right.

DB:  Now when we think about futures like that, one of the things we have to always keep in mind is that gas stations are how people feed their kids.  I think we need to get much more holistic about how we think about transforming how we do various things.  Just like with coal miners. They're fighting tooth and nail against the closing of coal mines. Do they love mining coal?  I have a hard time believing that they love mining coal. But they love the dignity of being able to provide for their families.  So what's the next thing that is going to give them dignity?

LR:   Right.  You can't just shut down one thing without providing the next step.

DB   Right.  Because they're human beings.  They're our countrymen.  What are they going to do? And so I don't think often enough, especially environmentalists, think holistically about, "Yes, we need to make these changes. How do we take care of everybody as we're changing?" And if we did more of that, I don't think people would fight as hard against the changes that would really benefit everybody.

LR: Is Bigelow Laboratory accessible to the public?

DB:   Yes.  I love it when people from anywhere come and visit us.  So the front door is always open.  We've got a receptionist there. You want a tour? We'll do our best to accommodate you. We'd love if you call ahead so that we can try to arrange things. But another goal, a personal goal of mine, is I would love to see everybody in this town, especially kids, feel comfortable walking into Bigelow and just seeing that scientists are just normal people. Now, normal could be…that's open to debate, but we're just regular people.  This is a job like any other job.  It's just also our passion.

LR:  It's not a mystery.

DB:  But it's not a mystery. And I think on my own journey. I knew I wanted to be an ocean scientist from the time I was a really little kid.  Even growing up in Nashville, because I watched Jacques Cousteau. And when I went to college, I knew I wanted to go on to grad school, but I thought, well, I'm not going to be a researcher, because, in my mind you had to be a genius to be a researcher.  And I'm smarter than the average bear, but I'm no genius.  But what I don't think I realized until I got involved in this, is science isn't about book smarts. It's about creativity. It's about organization. It's about being bullheaded and not giving up, because most of the time it doesn't work. There's all these things that make science very fun and accessible. I think if we just had more people walk in our halls and knowing what's going on here, it would seem very accessible to them too.  

And not that I'm trying to turn the world into scientists, but I am trying to turn the world into a place where they understand the science process and realize we're just trying to do the best we can to figure out how things work. And to solve problems.

LR:   Could you speak to the element of teamwork in the work that you do?

DB:   Yes.  So one of the great things about ocean science is it really is kind of a team sport. I think I've only published one paper in my entire life, out of close to 100 that I've written, that I was the only author on it.  Scientists in ocean science tend to always work in teams.  Most of my research was out on large ships.  So you're out on that ship with 12-40 people. And you all have to coordinate, and sometimes they help you with your experiments, and other times you help them with their experiments  So it really is a team sport. We're also getting to the point, and the questions we're asking, they're getting complicated enough that just one biological oceanographer can't do it.

So for example, in studying the harmful algal blooms in the Gulf, we had a group of biologists and chemists that were trying to figure out how can you get all of these cells out there. And we were trying to figure out where all the nitrogen comes from. We could not figure out how to get enough nitrogen into that water to make so many of these cells. Where is it coming from?

And so we had one project that was kind of, well, we know what doesn't work.  And so then we brought together a bigger team, and we got people that studied currents. And that, it turns out, you need the nitrogen, you need all these cells out there, but it's not until the winds push cells and concentrate on more than you could get just from growing them in a place themselves. That's when they start killing fish. And what are fish?  Bags of nitrogen.  And then it's like a runaway train.  And so we needed those physicists to help us figure out the answer to the problem.  And problems in ocean science now are -- we've solved all the small ones.  Now we got to get to the big ones, and you need a lot of different people before we're going to solve those.  So we need teams.

LR:   I love that.

DB:   And one of the things I really love about Bigelow is, we're not just ocean scientists.  And one of my personal goals is to expand that. So if you go to grad school and you learn oceanography, and we're all just in a building full of oceanographers, we've all been kind of trained the same way and we think the same way, roughly.  So let's get Nick Record, with the math background.  And we have Jose, who is from classical biology.  Get him in the mix. We just hired our newest scientist, John Burns, who starts tomorrow. He's trained as a geologist.  And so let's get people that have tools from other disciplines. Let's get them in here and let's see if ocean science can use it. It's not brilliant, but it's good.

LR:  Well, Doctor, thank you so much for speaking with me.  I really appreciate it.  And I love everything that you have to say.

DB: Well, thank you.  And I really look forward to hearing your piece.  I'm sure it's going to be amazing.

LR: I hope so. 

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