July 30, 2012

By Michael Keller

Dr. Edith Widder is an undersea explorer, innovator and cofounder of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association, which translates complex scientific findings into technological solutions. She is a certified scientific research pilot for atmospheric diving systems and has invented instrumentation for submersibles as well as deep-sea observation equipment.

A leading specialist in the emission of light from living organisms, called bioluminescence, Dr. Widder applies her research to reverse environmental degradation of the world’s aquatic ecosystems. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology, a master’s degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. in neurobiology, and received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006.

Q: Where are you right now and what are you up to?

Edith Widder: I’m in the northwest Pacific Ocean off the Ogasawara Islands, Japan, on a hunt for giant squid.

Q: How has your research into bioluminescence factored into developing new technologies?

EW: The Eye-in-the-Sea camera system, which I developed as a stealthy means of exploring the deep sea, is based on a bioluminescent deep-sea fish that uses far-red bioluminescence to see without being seen. And the optical lure that we use with it imitates the bioluminescent display of a common deep-sea jellyfish. We are using these technologies on our current expedition.

I’m also using bioluminescence in shallower waters as a means of making pollution visible. We have been creating maps of pollution in the coastal zone, in estuaries and in lakes and rivers by collecting sediment samples and mixing them with bioluminescent bacteria. Because the light output of these bacteria is directly linked to their respiratory chain, essentially their breathing, then any toxicant that interferes with respiration dims their light output and we have a quick, relatively inexpensive means of mapping toxicity. The maps look like the temperature map you see in the weather section of your newspaper, where red is hot and blue is cold, but for our maps red is toxic and blue is non-toxic.

It’s only by making people aware of where pollutants are accumulating in their local environments and how those pollutants are working their way into the food we eat and the water we drink that we can hope to mobilize the protections that need to be put into place to preserve our life-support systems.

Q: What are the scientific implications of your work? What are some of the possible future technological advances and applications of your research?

EW: We have explored only about 5 percent of our ocean. We are actually destroying the ocean before we know what’s in it and how it all works together to make life on Spaceship Earth possible. There are many technological advances that I would love to see developed that could advance both exploration and conservation. We need to have a NASA-like program and budget for the ocean. Our continued existence on our small blue planet demands it.

Q: What are some of the most exciting areas of current research in your field?

EW: For me, the greatest excitement is in exploring the deep sea and having the opportunity to see animals and behaviors that no one has ever seen before. There is also great excitement associated with finding new light-producing chemicals. Bioluminescence has evolved many times using many different chemistries. Some of these have been isolated and used to great benefit in cell biology and genetic engineering research to illuminate the inner workings of cells. But there are more bioluminescent and fluorescent chemicals waiting to be isolated and applied to new discoveries.

Q: What are the biggest problems in marine biology and conservation that need to be answered in the next decade or two?

EW: The biggest problems are those created by overpopulation. There are too many people on the planet putting too many demands on its finite resources and releasing too many pollutants that are contaminating our life-support systems. We need to work very quickly to alleviate the stress on these systems. They will heal themselves if we give them a chance, but that won’t happen unless we can educate people to the catastrophic folly of putting short-term gains ahead of their own long-term interests.

Q: What was your experience with math and science growing up?

EW: Both of my parents were mathematicians so my math training was excellent. My science training in school was not great until a breakthrough experience in high school, when I realized I could do science rather than just read about it. I was lucky enough to have a phenomenal high school science teacher – Harry Meserve – who gave out assignments of testable hypotheses. My hypothesis was “most high school students have flat feet.” I tried all kinds of ways to research it, including going to the draft board to ask for data on the number of enlistees out of high school with flat feet. They wouldn’t release that information. I was stumped. I went to Mr. Meserve and told him about all my dead ends. He wouldn’t tell me what to do but he kept asking me questions about where the data came from until finally a lightbulb went off over my head and I realized I could collect the data. I figured out a way to get inked footprints and then started lining up my classmates. I did the measurements, ran the statistics and disproved the hypothesis (at least for my sample set) and ended up with a whole new appreciation of the scientific method.

This is real hands on science – where students don’t just read about it, they do it – and I think it’s a critical part of science training that should start as early as possible.

Q: Were the scientific fields you’ve been so successful in presented to you as career paths growing up?

EW: No. In fact, when I told my junior-high guidance counselor that I was interested in science, the career path that was offered to me was to become a nurse. Fortunately, my parents were not so limited in their thinking and I had a great role model in my mother, who was a math professor.

Q: Do you have any anecdotes about being a woman studying and working in your field?

EW: When I was first starting to go to sea, I was frequently in the situation of being the only woman on the ship. In those days, ships had to carry all the fresh water they needed, so conserving water was a big deal. If the water supplies ran low, the men would tend to blame the woman on board for taking too-long showers. To counter such claims I became expert at taking spartan showers. Where most people use at least 10 gallons of water, I could manage with one.

The first time I went out on a British research vessel it was for a month-long trip and when I arrived they told me they had brought on an extra 10,000 gallons because I was going to be on board. I was outraged. But they had data to back up their claim that they would need it—turns out they had a woman on board before and they found that when there was a woman on board the men took more showers.

I told that story when I was recently asked to be on a panel entitled “Women at the cutting edge of science: Why should we care?” My response as to why we should care was “Better hygiene.”

Q: Do you feel women have reached parity within your field? Are they treated with the same gravitas as their male colleagues?

EW: There is still some disparity. There have been some interesting studies done where scientists were asked to review proposals that were randomly assigned either a male or female author. Those with a male author were consistently given better scores – even by female reviewers. There are still cultural biases, but they are surmountable and I think they are diminishing.

Q: Any advice for girls interested in studying the natural world or getting into engineering that you’ve learned over the course of your career?

EW: Start getting real-world experience as soon as you can. You don’t learn how to play baseball by studying about it in books. The best way to learn is by doing. And be optimistic. It is only the optimists – those who truly believe there is a solution to a problem – who will find the solution.


Top image: Dr. Edie Widder in the rear dive chamber of the Johnson-Sea-Link submersible in 2003. Courtesy Hugo Marrero.

This Q & A was originally published on the txchnologist.

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