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Edith Widder, J73, emerging from Johnson-Sea-Link submersible
Tom Smoyer/HBOI

Lighting the Way
Marine biologist Edith Widder has started a new venture to save our seas

The sea is full of fireflies. Not fireflies exactly, but millions of organisms that brighten the ocean with flashing displays of greenish-blue light. The phenomenon, called “bioluminescence,” may be the most common form of communication on the planet—and, like fireflies, it is beautiful to behold.

Marine biologist Edith Widder, J73, remembers the first time she descended in a submersible and found herself surrounded by this perfect starry night. “I said, ‘This has got to be one of the most important processes in the ocean. Why aren’t more people studying it?’ Since discovering that passion, I’ve never looked back.”

Now one of the top biologists working on the subject, Widder is also a pioneer in applying new technology to marine biology’s thorniest problems. This fall, she is opening a new conservation institute in Florida to help protect the world’s oceans. The Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA) will use an array of solar-powered sensors originally developed for NASA for space exploration to help identify and map pollutants and organisms, such as red tide, that are affecting our near-shore marine ecosystems. “Marine environments are degrading quickly,” says Widder. “We need clear data to show where the problems are, so action can be taken to reverse this trend.”

Bruce Robison, senior scientist at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, has high praise for Widder’s ingenuity and enterprise. “Many biologists are Luddites when it comes to technology,” he says. “Edie embraces it, which means she is often far ahead of everyone else.”

That was certainly the case with her latest accomplishment—a camera specially designed to photograph her beloved oceanic “fireflies.” Even though an estimated 90 percent of organisms in the upper layers of the ocean are bioluminescent, they are notoriously difficult to study. Capturing them with nets takes them out of their habitat, while the bright light of submersibles obscures the light of the organisms and drives them away.

Widder spent almost ten years developing the “Eye in the Sea,” which uses an intensified camera to record the bioluminescence and then turns on a far red light, invisible to the animals, to illuminate the organisms themselves. On the first field test last summer in the Gulf of Mexico, Widder used the camera to capture the image of a six-foot-long squid previously unknown to science. “I was just excited [the camera] was working,” says Widder. “Then this sequence popped up, and I’m told that I actually screamed.”

Widder attributes her affinity for high tech to her mother and father, who were mathematics professors at Tufts and Harvard, respectively. They also sparked her interest in the sea when they took her on a trip to Fiji when she was 11. Marine biology became her passion at Tufts, where she took a month-long hands-on course at the Lerner Marine Lab in Bimini. “They turned over their whole fleet of boats to us,” remembers then professor and biology chair Ned Hodgson. “Students were suddenly able to see all this great profusion of wonderful stuff they had no inkling of before.”

Widder was hooked, spending every day in the water. She also got her first taste of creating equipment, fashioning sampling devices out of Styrofoam cups and wire. “I’ve had to ‘Magyver’ a lot of things over the years,” she says. “This was early training in that.”

After graduating Tufts magna cum laude in biology in 1973, Widder studied biochemistry at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). There she met James Case, now research professor and professor emeritus at UCSB, who taught a neurobiology class. “I’ve had a lot of really good students,” says Case, “and she’s right up there with the top five or six.” Impressed by her abilities, he offered her a chance to study bioluminescence in one-celled organisms called dinoflagellates. The only problem was, Widder knew nothing about the subject. “I rushed home and pulled down the Encyclopedia Americana,” she says.

Widder quickly became fascinated by the ability of sea organisms to communicate through light, and taught herself how to use a fancy new spectrometer sent to the lab by the U.S. Navy. When the time came to take the equipment to sea, Case asked her to join the crew. “Suddenly,” she says, “I was a marine biologist.”

After earning her Ph.D. in neurobiology at UCSB in 1982, she stayed on to participate in tests of the deep-diving submersible, Wasp, in a project led by Robison. That experience, in part, made her attractive to Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, which is home to another submersible called the Johnson-Sea-Link. Hired by Harbor Branch in 1989, Widder has worked there 15 years, writing some 60 scientific papers about the phenomenon. Because bioluminescence is so common, Widder’s measurements have become valuable tools for determining how organisms are distributed and affected by changes in light, salinity, and temperature.

That research has convinced Widder that we are in big trouble. “We are destroying the oceans faster than we can discover what’s in them,” she says. Though only 5 percent of the oceans have been explored, an estimated 50 percent of fish species have already become extinct, mostly through overfishing and destruction of coastal habitat through development as well as runoff of fertilizer and chemicals. Even animals as big as the squid Widder discovered last year in the Gulf of Mexico may be forever unknown if those trends are not reversed. Facts like that compelled Widder to leave Harbor Branch this fall and take the plunge to create ORCA in order to provide policymakers with the data they need to make informed decisions.

Widder’s move toward conservation science has raised a few eyebrows in the scientific community. “Many scientists who conduct basic research don’t think of conservation as pure science,” says Robison. But Widder sees it as an evolution of her work, helping her protect the many species she has spent her life studying.

“A lot of people are totally unaware of what’s going on in our oceans,” she says. “We need to educate them to avert a crisis and I’d like to be part of the solution.”