Scientist honored for work off coast

By AMY WOLD, The Advocate
3 October 2012

 While attending an oceanography conference in Mexico several weeks ago, Nancy Rabalais got a call from a phone number she didn’t recognize.

“Do you know what the MacArthur Foundation is?” a voice on the phone asked.

Rabalais, a research scientist and the executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie, was well aware of the prestigious award and thought maybe they were looking for a recommendation from her on who to nominate as a recipient.

After beating around the bush with additional questions, the caller finally revealed that Rabalais had been chosen for the 2012 MacArthur Fellows Program.

“It’s a huge honor,” Rabalais said. “I’ve been in awe of these people and what they’ve accomplished. I never thought I’d get one.”

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards individuals a $500,000 stipend paid out over a five-year period. The stipends come with no strings attached and are meant to help people “of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual and professional inclinations,” according to the foundation’s website.

The foundation doesn’t require any product or reports from the recipient and there’s no evaluation of the recipient’s use of the money. The money is intended to give creative people some freedom to pursue what they want to do.

For Rabalais, that means putting the money back into the research she does on the low-oxygen area that forms off the coast of Louisiana every summer, commonly called the “dead zone.”

“My research funds are getting pretty tight,” she said. “You’re being awarded for being creative, but in my case I think it’s for being persistent.”

“And, as usual, it’s not something I earned by myself,” Rabalais said, referring to the team of researchers she’s worked with over the years.

Since 1985, Rabalais and her team have mapped the area of low oxygen that forms off the coast of Louisiana every summer. The cause of this dead zone, where oxygen levels in the water drop below what can sustain life, is nutrients that flow down the Mississippi River and increase the production of phytoplankton. As that phytoplankton dies and falls to the water bottom, oxygen is used up as the material decomposes.

In addition to her research at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, Rabalais is involved in national efforts to reduce the amount of nutrients that get into the river. She’s testified at congressional hearings and has worked to raise awareness of the harm caused by agricultural and other storm water runoff upstream that flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

“I can’t think of anyone more deserving. Nancy has done heroic and often seriously underappreciated work,” said Mark Davis, senior research fellow and director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane University. “Her work has been ignored, marginalized, demonized but now is widely accepted. In a perfect world, she and her colleagues would have been celebrated. It gives me hope to see that Nancy is.”

Rabalais said her persistence included keeping up the annual surveys of the low-oxygen area even though she used to get seasick. Then there’s the speaking she’s done around the country about the research on hypoxia, sometimes given to a less than receptive audience.

For example, she said, she might “walk into a room of 300 fertilizer manufacturers.” But she said she would arrive armed with peer-reviewed research and would present what she knew in a professional manner, without making judgments.

“I’d say her work is of international importance, since she’s mapped one of the largest hypoxic zones in the world off Louisiana’s coast, and has participated in scientific efforts around the world to understand this kind of phenomenon,” said Doug Daigle, coordinator of the Louisiana Hypoxia Working Group.

After three weeks of keeping the secret of the MacArthur Foundation award, Rabalais said she and her husband Gene Turner, also a scientist at LSU, went out to dinner. As they walked into the restaurant, Turner directed her into the dining room where he’d organized a surprise celebration party with about 20 of their friends. Rabalais admitted to tearing up a little.

“It was so very nice,” Rabalais said.