UC Santa Cruz marine biologist Mary Silver honored by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) will present one of its highest honors, the Mary Sears Woman Pioneer in Oceanography Award, to Mary Silver, professor of ocean sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Silver is being honored for providing "significant scientific leadership in understanding our marine environment" and for providing "the inspiration and/or opportunity for other women in marine sciences."

Silver will receive the award, a glass jellyfish sculpture and monetary prize, and deliver the award lecture, entitled "Life and Times of a Woman Oceanographer," on March 28 at WHOI. During her visit to Woods Hole, Silver will also meet with WHOI staff and graduate students, and will present an informal science seminar entitled "Eating Well in a Marine Food Web: Those Annoying Algal Toxins."

"I'm delighted Mary Silver is receiving this honor," said WHOI director Robert Gagosian. "Her contributions to marine science and education, and her leadership in mentoring junior staff, are fitting tributes to the high standards, spirit of collaboration, and strong commitment to the field exemplified by Mary Sears."

Margaret Delaney, professor and chair of ocean sciences at UCSC, said Silver has combined pioneering contributions to biological oceanography with outstanding teaching, service to the university, and leadership and mentorship of other marine and ocean scientists.

"Throughout her career, she has been unfailingly generous in providing rigorous academic and scientific mentoring, in giving advice and encouragement, and in opening doors and blazing pathways for those who have followed," Delaney said. "Professor Silver led the way for people with strong family commitments to go to sea, showing that scientists could combine challenging, field-based careers with family life."

Silver's career in oceanography began in 1964 at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, when she entered the doctoral program in biological oceanography. Her thesis research involved studying the role of a common zooplankton, the salp, as a key herbivore in the California Current. Her research provided some of the first estimates of the feeding capacity of salps, illuminating the critical role of sporadically blooming jelly plankton as major consumers of primary production in this eastern boundary current.

Silver received her Ph.D. from Scripps in 1971, and in 1972 was appointed assistant professor of marine studies at UCSC, where she has been teaching large nonmajor undergraduate classes as well as specialty upper-division and graduate classes for some 30 years. As the founding member the marine science academic program, she has taught over 4,000 students and has sponsored and encouraged many young marine biologists and oceanographers.

The work for which Silver is best known, her marine snow studies, began with undergraduate students taking her biological oceanography class in the mid-1970s. It resulted in the first estimates of the abundance of "marine snow"--nonliving particles more than 0.5 millimeters in diameter and readily visible to the unaided eye--and the communities of microorganisms that inhabit them. The research showed that many planktonic organisms thought to be "free-living" actually reside on particles. Because these organisms are abundant and active, the particles are, in fact, semi-isolated microhabitats for dense and unique microbial communities.

In the late 1990s, Silver began focusing largely on the transfer of phytoplankton toxins through marine food webs, from fish and krill to marine birds and filter-feeding whales. Working with her students, she is studying domoic acid, the recently discovered toxin responsible for amnesic shellfish poisoning that is produced by some diatoms, a type of algae. Since the diatoms also flocculate and settle as marine snow particles through the water and onto the underlying sediments, she is also beginning to study the potential contamination of seafloor communities by the algal toxins.

Silver's work on plankton-derived toxins combines a long-standing interest in the natural history of pelagic or open-ocean communities with her more oceanographically oriented research on material flux. Collaborating with her students and many colleagues in biological and chemical oceanography, Silver hopes to continue work in this more applied area of marine science, addressing problems related to ocean health and the possible involvement of humans in coastal ocean change.

The Women Pioneer in Oceanography Award was initiated by the WHOI Women's Committee as part of a Women's History Month celebration in March 1994, with Mary Sears its first recipient. Sears, who died in 1997, was one of the first staff members of the institution and a guiding force in its development. The award was later named for her, and Silver is the first recipient of the award named for Sears. Other recipients of the Women Pioneer in Oceanography Award include Elizabeth Bunce of WHOI in 1995, Ruth Turner of Harvard University in 1996, and Marie Tharp of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in 1999.

The award recognizes long-term life achievement and influence, with special consideration given to candidates who also have shown leadership through mentoring junior scientists, technicians, or students.

In 1992, Silver received the Henry Bryant Bigelow Medal in Oceanography from WHOI, along with Alice Alldredge of UC Santa Barbara. This award was "in recognition of their creative contributions to biological and chemical oceanography, particularly in demonstrating the importance of 'marine snow' as a major contributor to the vertical flux of particulate matter throughout the world's oceans."

Mary Sears received her doctoral degree in biology from Radcliffe College in 1933 and went on to pursue a lifelong career in oceanography. She is widely credited with turning a new, obscure field into a prestigious international science, and was the founding and longtime editor of the journal Deep-Sea Research. She also helped to establish the journal Progress in Oceanography, and served as editor of a number of books considered milestones in documenting the history of marine science. As a principal organizer of the first International Oceanographic Congress at the United Nations, she forged many important links with marine scientists around the world. During World War II she organized and led the new Oceanographic Unit of the Navy Hydrographic Office, which provided the foundation for the current Naval Oceanographic Office. As a member of nine scientific and honorary societies and longtime member of the governing board of WHOI, she provided leadership across the field and was an important mentor to generations of young scientists.