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Mundy, Phil
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Mundy, Phil

Sharing a Passion for Alaska Coastal Resources

Phil Mundy is the director of the NOAA Auke Bay Laboratories, a division of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center within the National Marine Fisheries Service. He is as passionate about his lab’s role in supporting stewardship of marine and coastal resources as he is about explain the lab’s work to broader audiences. He has been director of the Auke Bay Laboratories in Juneau since 2005, and previously held academic and state fisheries management positions. He has a Ph.D. in fisheries from the University of Washington.

Why is your research important?

I came to work for DOC/NOAA because its mission is an exact fit for my career objectives; part of the Department of Commerce mission statement is to “provide effective management and stewardship of our nation’s resources and assets to ensure sustainable economic opportunities.” My research is important because conservation of living marine resources and protection of coastal and ocean habitats is essential to the health and economy of our country. If marine resources are to contribute to the economic well being of the nation on a sustainable basis, resource utilization decisions need to be guided along sustainable pathways by policy-relevant scientific information. I believe that building readily understandable scientific information from the basic building blocks of observations and models is the most important work that a NOAA scientist can do.

What do you do to share your passion about research with broader audiences?

One of the best ways I have found to infuse the public with a passion for science is through scientific meetings where the format allows the public and media to understand what is presented. As a an original convener of the Alaska Marine Sciences Symposium, which today annually attracts 800 – 900 scientists from Alaska and the rest of the nation, I helped establish a plenary format where speakers are required to use jargon-less English and simple illustrations that can reach people of all scientific disciplines. The meeting is becoming popular with members of the public and the press as a place to hear about the most recent scientific discoveries relevant to their livelihoods and interests. I also provide written work, oral interviews, and background materials to our public outreach specialists who work with the media, I often do the “meet-and-greet” function when members of the public come to visit our facility, and I work with graduate students when time permits.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

"I believe that building readily understandable scientific information from the basic building blocks of observations and models is the most important work that a NOAA scientist can do."

I really enjoy the positive energy I receive from daily interactions with the people at our lab who share a common sense of urgency about the work we do, and who so obviously enjoy meeting the intellectual and physical challenges of gathering data from some of the harshest environments in the world, the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Arctic. The team spirit at our lab keeps me energized even when problems with budgets and logistics make things really tough.

Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?

Most of my work is done on the Internet, working with the data and information from our scientists who work on the water, and using information produced by other parts of NOAA and other entities. I use the Internet each day to connect scientists with the financial and material resources they need, to connect scientists with potential collaborators, to answer regional and national questions with our lab’s information, to engage teams of scientists who are developing research strategies to deal with existing and emerging marine resource management problems, and to look for better ways to apply our scientific resources to meet the needs of our client agencies, such as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

What in your lab could you not live without?

I absolutely could not live without the facilities crew members who keep the seawater running to the labs, plow the snow, maintain the heating and ventilation systems, build infrastructure to support experiments, and so much more. Juneau is a high latitude location (58N) with no road access, so I couldn't live without the peace of mind provided by a talented group of people who are always ready to deal with “things that go bump in the night.”

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

It would be an inexpensive tag the size and weight of a thumbnail to record the physical oceanographic conditions surrounding a fish by time and location. Tags like this already exist but they are relatively large and expensive, so there are many species of fish for which current tags are too big, and regardless of size, cost now prohibits applying them to enough individuals to make inferences to the larger population. Physical observations from satellites, moorings and ships have really helped our understanding of how climate shapes fish production. Taking our understanding to the next level requires physical observations of the waters that actually surround the fish.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

I grew up on the “lab bench,” as the son of a research toxicologist who shared his work with me, so I had a lot of opportunities to get to know biochemistry and molecular biology at an early age. Spending long hours indoors wrestling cranky analytic instruments while suffering the occasional rat bite did not appeal to me as a career. It wasn't until college that I started to understand there were other areas of science that would allow me to combine my interests in fish, fishing, and diving with making a living. When I learned that I could do some of my work outside without ever again having to clean out rat cages, I was sold on a career in fisheries science.

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

Careers in science don’t get much better than that of Prof. Edward O. Wilson, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his ability to communicate the wonder and fulfillment of science to the public. His autobiographical work, Naturalist, in tracing his path in science from the beaches of Alabama to the Harvard Biological Laboratories, Wilson provides an allegorical history of science that doubles as a road map for aspiring scientists.

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

I joined NOAA late in my career, after having worked frequently with NOAA scientists over the years, so I have to say that this job didn't hold any real surprises for me.

Do you have an outside hobby?

I enjoy music, as a listener and collector of everything from Texas swing to chamber music. Thanks to my iPod I can combine music with hiking and weight training, which fill out the rest of my spare time.

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

I would have enjoyed being a software engineer, the trials of the engineers depicted in the comic strip, Dilbert, notwithstanding. To support my family while in fisheries graduate school, I worked as an application programmer for the School of Public Health at the University of Washington where I coded custom statistical programs and wrangled databases for the faculty. I loved the challenges of translating the mathematics into computer language, and threading the programs and large data sets through the computer’s operating system. I was tempted to leave fisheries for computers, but I didn’t want to give up working summers on the water amid beautiful scenery.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

Galileo Galilei is said to have been called the “father of modern science” by his intellectual descendant and beneficiary, Sir Isaac Newton, so who am I to disagree? In all seriousness, I readily identify with the challenges Galileo faced in describing the workings of the natural world in terms of mathematical models. What I find even more admirable than his successes in understanding and communicating how so many things worked, is that he did so while inventing a good deal of the mathematics he applied to the problems encountered. In Galileo’s life and times I also find confirmation of the comforting thought that science always eventually trumps politics, whether or not those involved live to see it. Galileo reminds me that the political controversies over the facts and origins of global climate change that have buffeted so many scientists inside and outside of NOAA will eventually cease, and to the extent that it is supported by observation, the science will remain for all time.

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