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September 17, 2018
On the record

Q&A with Deborah Bronk, new leader of Bigelow Laboratory

Photo / Courtesy of Bigelow Laboratory For Ocean Sciences, Reggie Huang
Photo / Courtesy of Bigelow Laboratory For Ocean Sciences, Reggie Huang
Deborah Bronk took over as president and CEO of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences this past spring, joining the East Boothbay marine research institution from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.

Deborah Bronk took over as president and CEO of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences on March 1, joining the East Boothbay marine research institution from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, where she was the Moses D. Nunnally Distinguished Professor of Marine Sciences and department chair. She succeeded Graham Shimmield, who held the position for nine years before he died in December 2016. Mainebiz caught up with her recently.

Mainebiz: You're following in the footsteps of a well-regarded president and CEO, Graham Shimmield. How do you balance honoring his legacy while moving Bigelow Laboratory toward the future?

Deborah Bronk: Graham was a visionary leader, so I believe the best way to honor his legacy is to keep venturing in bold, new directions. There is incredible opportunity hidden in the ocean, and our scientists conduct global research that allows us to understand and unlock that untapped potential. I can think of no better tribute to Graham than continuing the relentless search for ocean knowledge and resources that can make a difference to the well-being of the planet and all of us who call it home.

MB: How important is fundraising to your job at Bigelow?

DB: Individuals and foundations provide vital philanthropic support to our global ocean research and education programs, powering much of our most progressive work. We live in a time where federal funding for ocean science is flat or declining. While Bigelow Laboratory scientists have success rates for securing federal research grants that are well above the national average, federal support alone is not sufficient to support a modern laboratory. One of my most important jobs will be to continue to diversify our portfolio of funding sources to include new support through our educational programs and nascent commercial activities.

MB: Are there opportunities to collaborate with Jackson Lab and MDI Biological Laboratory?

DB: The ocean science at Bigelow Laboratory is fairly distinct from the work at the Jackson Lab and MDI Biological Laboratory. However, some of the most transformational science in history has occurred at the boundaries of disciplines. I'd love to find ways to partner with scientists at both of these institutes, as I'm sure there are biomedical tools and approaches that could advance our work in microbial oceanography and vice versa.

MB: Your own area of research is around nitrogen, an excess of which is often blamed for algae blooms. Maine has been spared the worst of the algae blooms, but what kind of impact could such a bloom have on the state's fisheries?

DB: Harmful algal blooms come in many forms. From a fishery perspective, toxin-producing algae are the most troubling, and we have seen significant changes with these organisms in the Gulf of Maine. For instance, one algae that can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning in people after they consume affected shellfish, is becoming much more prevalent. The Maine Department of Marine Resources works with us to ensure the safety of harvested seafood and is watching this situation closely. Large blooms of any toxin-forming species require the temporary closure of shellfish harvesting, which can be devastating to those dependent on these fisheries for their income.

MB: Bigelow Lab has a relatively new facility and an amazing location. So recruiting researchers and support staff must be a snap, right?

DB: With our international reputation, Bigelow Laboratory has a great track record of recruiting top scientists from around the world. As scientists tend to marry other professionals, however, it can sometimes be challenging for their spouses to continue their careers in our beautiful, but rural, location. A compromise that some make is to live in a community that is further away but allows their significant other to more easily access larger job markets. Additionally, because of our strong draw with scientists, we actually tend to have more difficulty recruiting the skilled support staff we need. One approach I'm taking to get around this is to support professional development for staff so that we can build up some of the skill sets we need internally.

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