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Libby Jewett
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Libby Jewett

Leading Ocean Acidification Research

Libby Jewett, Ph.D., leads a NOAA research program on changes in ocean chemistry that pose a significant threat to ecosystems. While her program works diligently to understand this recently recognized threat, she is also working hard to educate audiences beyond the ocean science community about the threat of ocean acidification. She has met with representatives on Capitol Hill, spoken to members of the news media, and conducted a recent interactive, live web broadcast for academic researchers and students.


Why is ocean acidification research important? 

Ocean acidification has only recently been identified as a critical threat facing the function of the ocean and its ecosystems. It is therefore extremely important that we do research both to understand how and where the chemistry is changing and also what impact those changes will have on corals, fish and the algae which produce most of the oxygen we breathe.

"I enjoy the challenge of starting a new program which involves bridging the spectrum from supporting fundamental science to creating policy to educating the public."

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

I am constantly exploring different ways of explaining scientific findings to non-scientists. Although the science may seem relatively straight forward to me, one realizes quickly that many people don’t understand even the fundamentals of how the ocean and ocean chemistry works. It is important to develop analogies relevant to that audience’s experience that can lead to insight without losing their attention. We are in the process of developing an ocean acidification website at NOAA which will showcase all the research that is happening within and funded by the agency. I also look for opportunities to present to interested audiences. Recently, we developed a live webcast showcasing the research being done at the Aquarius Reef Base. I had never done a webcast before so it was an exploration into a new media which worked really well.

What do you enjoy the most about your work? 

I enjoy the challenge of starting a new program which involves bridging the spectrum from supporting fundamental science to creating policy to educating the public. Different skills are required across that spectrum so every day can be different. I am also building a coalition both within NOAA and across the federal government to make sure that we work smartly with limited resources.

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

I am director of a science program so my work is more administrative than actually doing the research, although I did experimental field studies before coming to NOAA. 

What in your office could you not live without? 

My computer and my connection to the Internet. For my prior research in the field, I would have to say duct tape, cable ties, and PVC. As a marine ecologist, I could fix or make most things I needed from those three items.

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

An easily deployable, lightweight, energy-harvesting sensor which could collect all of the important oceanographic variables needed to understand the changing chemistry of the ocean: dissolved inorganic carbon, pH, dissolved carbon dioxide, alkalinity, salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, fluorescence, and turbidity; and also could sense, measure, and count organisms in the water such as zooplankton and fish. It also would be resistant to fouling and be able to send information back to my computer in real time. This would go a long way towards characterizing changes without the hassle of needing multiple sensors, power supply, and relatively constant maintenance.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science? 

I think that I knew back in high school, although I didn’t begin pursuing a career in science until about 10 years after graduating from college. I am glad that I had the chance to pursue other careers – in politics, human services, and environmental conservation – before coming back to science.

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

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring inspired me to pursue science as a way to understand better man’s impact on the Earth and to determine how I might be a better steward for its protection.

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

I didn’t expect to be directing a major scientific initiative on one of the most pressing scientific topics to face the world’s oceans.

Do you have an outside hobby? 

I recently planted a vegetable garden which I love to tend and watch grow. 

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

I probably would have continued working in non-profit management.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?  

The European scientists who led the HMS Challenger expedition of the late 18th century, the first truly research-oriented oceanographic cruise in history. The samples collected from the expedition are still being analyzed and proving useful today.  


Libby Jewett earned a doctorate in biology at the University of Maryland, a master of public policy degree at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and a bachelor’s degree at Yale University. She is an adjunct professor of biology at George Washington University and has authored a number of peer-reviewed publications and interagency research assessments and plans.

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