Legendary oceanography professor has made sea changes in students' lives

Gary Griggs is renowned for his mentorship as well as his research, publications, and community outreach. A newly launched endowment celebrates his influence.

Gary Griggs during a visit to the Azores. Photo by Deepika Shrestha Ross.

The celebrated UC Santa Cruz oceanography professor Gary Griggs made a vow this spring, and he plans to stick with it. 

“I am going to be the last guy standing at UC Santa Cruz,” he declared with equal parts bluster and self-deprecating humor. 

Griggs, 77, distinguished professor of Earth and planetary sciences, is well aware of the fact that most faculty members who have taught for more than half a century, as he has, have the word "emeritus" or "emerita" hanging off the end of their titles. At this point, only one other active faculty member, a professor in the English Department, has been on campus longer than he has. 

But Griggs has found renewed vigor and boldness in his longevity on campus. 

“It’s funny,” he said, “but I don’t feel old.” 

Hired by UC Santa Cruz’s founding Chancellor Dean McHenry in 1968, he still gets “such a big rush” from stepping into the classroom. In fact, he’s so averse to retirement that he has little patience for words that have retirement connotations, such as “influence” or “future legacy.”

“This is my 53rd year of teaching," he said with a laugh. “I know some people who cannot wait for retirement. My father was a high school teacher who got so burned out, he retired at 55. But I don’t see any reason to step down until you are really ready for it. Many people are, and they stand around the coffee shop hoping someone will talk to them.”

And lately, some of those who have benefited from his mentorship are trying to find ways to honor him. 

That desire to celebrate his influence, and benefit future generations of scientists, lies at the heart of the newly launched Gary Griggs Endowment for Student Research Support in Earth Sciences, which supports high-impact research and professional development for undergraduates and graduates in Earth & Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz.

At heart, a teacher and mentor 

Although he has no plans to step down, Griggs has been in a reflective mode lately, expressing gratitude for everyone who has taken his classes, read his influential oceanography-themed columns in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, or attended his community lectures. 

Griggs has much to celebrate about his career, including many awards, dozens of graduate students, and hundreds of scientific articles. He’s known for groundbreaking research on the coastal zone and development, through shoreline processes, coastal hazards, coastal engineering, and sea-level rise. 

Local governments hit him up constantly for advice about the viability and impacts of breakwaters, seawalls and jetties, and coastal policies to reduce the devastating impact of upward-creeping sea levels. 

Among his key achievements are partnerships with the U.S. Geological Survey and the NOAA Fisheries Santa Cruz laboratory, and leading the successful campaign to build the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, the popular visitors center and hands-on aquarium. The Seymour Center opened on March 11, 2000, and receives 70,000 visitors a year, including many schoolchildren.

But his time as a teacher and a mentor are the accomplishments he values above all others. His youngest scholars are barely out of their teens, but he’s also in contact with alumni who are in their 70s. 

“I think one of the times it hit me was probably 20 years ago now when a student came up to me after a big oceanography class and said, 'My mom and dad took your class,' and five or six years ago when a young woman said, ‘My grandma took your class."’

An astronaut praises him to the moon

Griggs gets constant reminders of his influence. He’ll receive emails out of the blue, and can’t even walk into a doctor’s office without someone recognizing and remembering him. 

One of the highest-profile recent shoutouts came from astronaut and oceanographer Kathryn Sullivan (Cowell ’73, Earth sciences) during her recent informal “fireside chat” with UC Santa Cruz Professor Emerita of Astronomy and Astrophysics Sandra Faber, an event that also publicized the naming of two interactive, high-tech floors in the newly renovated Science & Engineering Library in their honor. 

Though the spotlight was on Sullivan and Faber, Sullivan—the first American woman to walk in space and later the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—devoted several minutes of her talk to gushing about Griggs and his oversized influence on her life. 

“To me [Griggs's mentorship is] really symbolic of the commitment to reaching out, supporting and educating students at UC Santa Cruz," she said. 

Sullivan met Griggs at a pivotal moment in her time at UC Santa Cruz. 

“I was not quite 18 years old, and still a declared language major when I worked up the courage to go up to Gary after class one day, and I didn’t put any of this very intelligently," Sullivan said. "I essentially said, 'I’ve taken a very interesting marine biology course with [founding faculty member and celebrated biology professor] Todd Newberry. I am loving this stuff, and I don’t even quite really know why. So I don’t know if I just found my lifetime hobby, or something more.'”

As she remembers it, Griggs was not the least bit put off by her rambling query. Instead, he responded to the energy and far-ranging curiosity behind the questions.

“I asked him, ‘What does it mean to be an oceanographer, besides lecturing to freshmen?’" Sullivan recalled. “But instead of dissing me, as he could very well have done, he heard what was underneath it. He responded to the interest, invited me up to his lab the following Saturday, and spent three quarters of a day fielding my questions, one after the other. 

“So, in a nutshell, where most professors would have looked down their noses at my ignorant questions and reminded me how huge the chasm was between us, Gary built a bridge across that gulf.”

Idealism and activism

 Griggs takes great pride in Sullivan’s lavish praise of his work with her during her UC Santa Cruz years. 

 “A student like Kathryn Sullivan will come along maybe once or twice in your career,” he said. 

But reaching out to students and finding common cause with them has always come naturally to him, even during his early years on campus. 

Griggs arrived at UC Santa Cruz as a 25-year-old professor—just a few years older than his 19- and 20-year-old students—after earning his Ph.D. at Oregon State University in a whirlwind of three years. He has vivid stories of teaching to a packed room at Thimann Lecture Hall, having never taught a college class. He entered the room and faced “a huge throng of 260 people. Some of the students brought their dogs to class. The room smelled of patchouli oil. I was kind of overwhelmed! It was a hippie enclave. I actually had a coat and tie on at that point.”

 When the class wrapped up, “I was kind of humbled," he said. “I said, ‘You know, thanks for taking this class, I really enjoyed it,' and they all stood up and clapped.”  

One of his early classes was all about local environmental problems—and led to Griggs’ taking some strong public stances. 

At the time, a development of 10,000 homes had been proposed for the Wilder Ranch property, which Griggs strongly opposed. The project was later scrapped. In 1970, Griggs also voiced his opposition to a planned large nuclear power plant on a coastal terrace just north of Davenport. His class—along with a citizen’s group called CEDAR (the Committee to Examine the Dangers of Atomic Reactors)—carefully examined claims that the plant would be safe, clean, and efficient. Like the Wilder Ranch subdivision, the reactor was never built. 

These days, Griggs doesn’t think twice about making potentially controversial statements about problems that are, in the long term, unresolvable, and are being dealt with in temporary "Band-Aid" approaches, such as landslides and coastal erosion. 

“My writing now is probably a lot bolder than it was all those years ago when I had to worry about getting tenure," he said. 

For instance, he gets many interview requests in which people ask him “what can be done" about the Rat Creek landslide, a constant threat to those who live on or wish to travel through California’s Big Sur coast. 

“They ask me, 'Well, how do you fix the Big Sur highway problem,'" he said. “I say, ‘Well, you don’t fix it.' In short, any 'solution' will be a Band-Aid. This is what you call a wicked problem, meaning there’s no solution. And we’re at the point where cities across the planet will have to deal with this kind of issue.”

Officials, in various parts of the world, have thrown around terms such as "managed retreat" or "managed relocation" to keep coastal communities viable and safe in the face of unstable geology and coastal erosion as well as sea-level rise. The trouble is, he said, there is no blueprint for such relocation. How would it work? What would it cost? What are the logistics of such a massive project? 

“When all has been said and done, much more has been said than done,” Griggs said.

'An incredible sense of accomplishment' 

If Griggs can only do so much to solve the world’s environmental problems, he can at least take pride in how much he’s transformed the oceanography infrastructure at UC Santa Cruz. Promoted to full professor in 1979, he served as chair of the Earth Sciences Department from 1981 to 1984 and associate dean of natural sciences from 1991 to 1994. 

While leaving a mark with his teaching and research, he also played a decisive role in guiding the development of UC Santa Cruz’s Coastal Science Campus, which is now a bustling science hub, a far cry from what it looked like back in 1991 when Griggs assumed the directorship of the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) back when the marine lab campus was a few trailers huddled on dusty land bordering fields of Brussels sprouts. 

Even more impressively, the campus, which includes a lavish amount of classroom and laboratory space, was built almost entirely from non-university funds. 

When he’s on the Coastal Science Campus, he has “an incredible sense of accomplishment" and is grateful to the many community partners who supported the project including alumna and Monterey Bay Aquarium founder and executive director Julie Packard (Crown ’74, B.A. biology; M.A. ’78) 

That project is just part of a long-term philosophy. 

“Every day, I want to have accomplished something, push something a little bit forward," he said. “I just don’t like to do nothing. At any one time I have two books I’m working on, I’m preparing a lecture, and I’m advising five or six graduate students.” 

And Griggs continues to expand his reach well beyond the confines of campus. In addition to his campus responsibilities, he often speaks to audiences as varied as high school students, Rotary Club members, and the residents of retirement communities. It’s all part of his strong public outreach for science. 

On the one hand, he feels “a certain obligation" to speak to any audience that will have him, “because it’s giving back to the community. We’re paid by the state of California.” On the other hand, he gets a lot of satisfaction from interacting with different audiences and giving media interviews. A lot of that springs from his energetic and positive attitude. 

“I feel like I’ve won the genetic lottery” in terms of mood and outlook, he said. 

Outpourings of gratitude 

Part of that seemingly boundless energy goes into his thoughtful mentorship of undergraduates and graduate students as well as former students who are making their way into the working world or pursuing academic careers. 

Many of those former students become emotional when talking about the way that Griggs influenced the trajectories of their lives. 

Juliano Calil, who earned his ocean sciences Ph.D. at UC Santa Cruz in 2017, described mentorship as “one of Gary Griggs’s superpowers." 

 "He is kind, generous, and has a firm but gentle style that encourages and imparts confidence," Calil said. "His advice and guidance were vital to the completion of my Ph.D. at UCSC and greatly contributed to the work I am doing today. Gary has been a role model as a mentor and a scientist, and I am very proud to have been his 72nd graduate student.”

Kiersten “Kiki” Patsch started graduate school in marine geology in 2000 with Griggs assigned as her adviser. She had never met him, but he came highly recommended from one of her professors at the University of Virginia, so Patsch packed her bags and dogs and headed out West. She was eager to study coastal processes and hazards under Griggs’s guidance because she’d heard “he was a legend."

But Griggs continued encouraging and motivating her even after she’d completed her graduate studies. After graduate school, her life took a few unexpected turns when she moved back to Virginia. 

 “I had four kids and wanted to stay home and take care of the chaos," Patsch said. But she worried constantly about derailing her prospects for an academic career. Could she still regain her footing and become a professor if she devoted herself full-time to being a mom?

 “Everyone in my life, except for Gary, told me to give up on my professor dreams,” Patsch said. But Griggs also told her that both dreams could come true; she could spend all the time she needed looking after her kids, and still pursue her academic career later. His advice was more than just professional, in other words; it was warm and humanistic, taking into account her quality of life and not just her career prospects. 

“Gary told me that I would never look back on my life and wish I had worked more, but I may look back and wish I’d spent more time with my kids,” said Patsch.

Taking Griggs’s words to heart, she lectured here and there, and Griggs wrote her dozens of letters of recommendations for jobs she wasn’t sure she wanted because she was overwhelmed with parental responsibilities. Then, in 2014, Griggs sent her a job announcement that filled her with joy. 

“This was the perfect job, the perfect time, and the perfect place. My littlest was starting kindergarten and my oldest was starting middle school. I was the mom I needed and wanted to be, and now I was going to have the opportunity to be the teacher I wanted to be, one that would be able to influence the lives of students the way Gary had influenced mine. Why not move to the opposite coast and start a new full-time job?

“Gary pushed me to believe in myself when I felt like a fraud,” said Patsch, who went on to co-write and edit a 2005 book, Living With the Changing California Coast, with Griggs and Lauret Savoy (M.S. '83, Earth sciences). “Once again, he was believing in me and pushing me even when I wanted to give up on myself. I have looked to him as a friend, colleague, father-figure, and truly the most inspirational and influential person I could imagine. I am forever grateful to have him in my life.”

Learn more and/or make a gift to the Gary Griggs Endowment for Student Research Support in Earth Sciences.