Coastal CommandBy Megan Scudellari, The Scientist
1 September 2013
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped parts of the roof off the research building of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), situated 85 miles southwest of New Orleans in the heart of Mississippi River Delta wetlands. One month later, Hurricane Rita poured water into the facility, causing major flood damage. In 2008, Hurricane Gustav’s 157-mile-per-hour winds again damaged the roof. A month later, Hurricane Ike flooded the complex with the highest water levels the facility had ever seen.
“We’re constantly under repair,” says Nancy Rabalais, director of LUMCON. And just like her research center, Rabalais has weathered many storms, atmospheric and scientific, during her career. Once a graduate student ready to leave research, now a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Rabalais has zigged and zagged her way across land and ocean to become the face of coastal ecosystem research and outreach in the Gulf of Mexico. Her work over the last 3 decades has brought national attention to the dramatic expansion of marine hypoxic zones—areas of ocean with low dissolved oxygen concentrations that can no longer support aquatic life—and has shaped Rabalais into an outspoken advocate for mitigating this damage.
Here, Rabalais recalls chasing fiddler crabs around South Texas, her first research cruise on a rickety boat, and how everything changed after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Rabalais Gets Real
Serendipitous skills. “My father was an engineer and my mom was a stay-at-home mom in the 1950s. It was like Leave It to Beaver. We moved around Texas a lot until I was 13 and ended up in Corpus Christi. While some people have their careers planned out—they know where they’re going to get their PhD, when they’ll get married and have children, when they’ll get a beagle—mine just happened along the way. I went to Del Mar College, a 2-year college in Corpus Christi, because I was paying my own way through school, working almost 40 hours a week as an office manager and secretary. That’s the only way I could do it. Interestingly, my mother insisted I take typing and shorthand in high school because she said I would need to be able to get a job someday. And those two skills came in very handy, especially the shorthand, because it got me a well-paying summer job that kept me in school. But I headed in the direction of biology rather than business.”
“My PhD research was essentially chasing fiddler crabs around Texas. It did not prepare me for congressional briefings.”
Reef madness. “From Del Mar, I went to Texas A&I in Kingsville, a 4-year school where my sister had gone. I was still working a lot in Corpus Christi, so I took a bus there and back every day. At A&I I had some excellent biology teachers, and because of its location