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Michelle Wood
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Michelle Wood

Stretching the Boundaries of What We Know about the Ocean

Michelle Wood is director of the Ocean Chemistry Division at NOAA's Atlantic Oceanic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) in Miami, Fla. Before beginning her detail at AOML, Wood acted as the director of the Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Oregon. Her research uses tools from genetics, cell biology, oceanography, and remote sensing to explore connections between microorganisms in the sea and the physical processes influence them. She has a bachelor's degree in biology and speech and theater from the University of Corpus Christi, a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Georgia, and postdoctoral training from the University of Chicago. Not long after arriving in Miami, Wood was tasked with leading her division in their response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.


Why does your research matter?

Research in my division contributes to protection and restoration of coral reefs, provides an understanding of climate change, and sets the stage for understanding the impact of major events and changes on ecosystems that sustain biodiversity, ecosystem productivity, and human welfare – particularly in South Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean, but also on a global scale. The research is important in these practical terms, but also because my colleagues and I are often working at the forefront of knowledge, learning things that are as yet unknown. Thus, we can help move the boundary of what people know about nature a little bit forward with each of our studies.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

"I liked the idea that science rewarded curiosity and creativity, and I loved being outdoors in the ocean."

Adding to human knowledge and the process of exploration and discovery have been the biggest sources of enjoyment and satisfaction from my work. I love going to sea and the travel associated with being part of an international community of scientists. As both a professor and a Division Director, my job has included many opportunities to teach and help other people build their careers, do good science, and meet their own goals. These are also important sources of enjoyment and satisfaction.

Did the priorities of your research change after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

The basic priority, serving NOAA's mission and promoting good science did not change at all, although we had to try to do it a bit faster than the average scientist does science! On the other hand, my day-to-day task list was completely turned upside down. The spill occurred shortly after I joined NOAA, and my daily life was rapidly taken over by activities related to helping mobilize the capacity we have here at AOML to help with the spill, acting as a point-of-contact for the lab with media and other elements of NOAA, and participating in conference calls and cruises. I worked a lot of extremely long days so that I could also continue trying to learn my new job as Division Director, support my staff, and respond to the emergency at the same time. It was like having two jobs…but it allowed me to meet a lot of really great people in other parts of NOAA that I probably would not have encountered so soon, or perhaps ever. I am still working with a number of people at AOML, within NOAA, and in partner agencies and organizations on research related to the sensors used to detect oil in the water column and on publishing the research we did during the summer.

What did your research contribute to our knowledge of the spill?

My research contributed to our knowledge of the spill in two main ways. First, many of us at AOML and in South Florida are seagoing oceanographers who have been studying the circulation and other ecosystem properties in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly as the currents provide connectivity between the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast, and the Florida Keys through the Loop Current. I was Chief Scientist on a cruise from Gulfport, Miss., to Miami, Fla. in early June to see if there was any evidence that oil or tar balls in the Loop Current, and to collect samples for forensic analysis.

My background in ocean color and fluorescence was also useful this summer. Before I came to NOAA I did a lot of ecological work on the distribution of different kinds of phytoplankton using techniques based on subtle differences in the fluorescence excitation and emission properties of their pigments. During the oil spill, NOAA and other partners used fluorometers tuned for colored organic matter and hydrocarbons to detect subsurface oil. Because of my background in pigment fluorescence, I started asking questions about the fluorescence properties of the oil and the effect of weathering and dispersants on the ability of the fluorometers to actually 'see' the oil. From data my colleagues and I collected this summer, it is clear that no single off-the-shelf fluorometer is ideal for all combinations of oil and dispersants. In May, I will lead a team of scientists from NOAA, EPA, and academia who will be doing studies at the Center for Offshore Oil and Gas Environmental Research at Bedford Institute of Oceanography. Our experiments will be conducted in a wave tank especially designed for testing instruments in oiled water. The study will provide a lot of information about the relationship between the state of the oil and the sensitivity of the instrument; It is also expected to provide guidance for the development of the next generation of hydrocarbon sensors.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

It would be great to have small INEXPENSIVE and easy-to-use autonomous vehicles capable of collecting biological and biogeochemical information, as well as physical information. This technology is actually pretty far along, but – in my imagination – I can see instruments that accept and utilize chips or microarrays for specific processes of interest, and then return information about rates of processes occurring at fronts, or at particular density surfaces, or other interesting regions at frequent intervals. For many chemical parameters like nutrients or trace metals, we are really close to having the type of sensors that would be needed – the next step will be to be merge what we are learning from metabolomics and proteomics with robotics and other technology to develop small sensors for taxonomy and functional processes, and then to merge that technology with platforms like gliders, AUVs, or drifters. I think this type of instrument is important because it is still really hard to sample key properties in the three-dimensional ocean at large spatial and temporal scales using traditional ship-based methods or from space; Inexpensive and powerful sensors on gliders and AUVs could do a lot to improve the 3-D observing of the world ocean. This would give us an unprecedented opportunity to understand the baseline condition of the ocean, the scale of natural variation, and to detect unusual events. We need this to understand the system's response to possible climate change and ocean acidification as well as episodes like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

I decided to be a marine scientist in 7th grade when I became part of a National Science Foundation program intended to recruit young people into science. It was a complete surprise when I was picked; before that I intended to be a novelist or journalist. However, I loved the program and especially the opportunities it provided to work in different laboratories, including the National Hurricane Center and a cancer research laboratory. I liked the idea that science rewarded curiosity and creativity, and I loved being outdoors in the ocean. After a little experience working with dolphins and killer whales, I discovered that microbes and molecules offered me the kind of scientific rigor I needed to study whole organisms in the wild while using very precise scientific tools. It has been a hugely satisfying career, although I have to admit that for about a year in college I became a theater major and did, in fact, graduate with a double major in biology and speech and theater.

What's at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

It depends on their age - young people will get a lot out of going outside and exploring nature, making collections, observing and using books as resources to help understand what they see. The professional societies have terrific websites that usually provide information about how to develop a career in whatever field the society represents. I often recommend that people interested in aquatic sciences look at the website for the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography ( People will get a lot of insight about the field by exploring the whole site, but the link for the specific item on Becoming an Aquatic Scientist is:

And how about a personal favorite book?

There are so many!! … I loved Cod, as a nonfiction book, and The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, which was the first autobiography ever written.

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?

Coordinating with scientists in other line offices whose job is to respond to hazardous material emergencies, especially oil spills. I didn't know that NOAA did this kind of work before the oil spill. I really enjoyed talking to the spotters on the C-130 aircraft that supported us when we were looking for oil near the Loop Current on the R/V Walton Smith.

Do you have an outside hobby?

I love to sail – I have a little racing dinghy and crew on some larger boats in races and regattas. In Miami, the cruising lifestyle is also pretty wonderful… any kind of sailboat is perfect!

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

Probably writing and sailing, but who really knows? It's kind of hard to imagine not having become a scientist! I would hope I would have done something that was useful and helpful to other people, whatever it was.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

I am inspired by the many Victorian and early 20th century women scientists who managed to get educated and work in laboratories or even in the field. They made enormous contributions while knowing that they would probably never be formally recognized nor have their names attached to the big ideas and discoveries they made happen. I think their efforts reflect greatness of spirit, and determination, plus a clearly overwhelming enjoyment of the process of discovery. Tracking down their stories and reading about their lives is really fascinating.

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