Alumni Q&A: Dr. Deborah Bronk MEES ‘92

April 26, 2022

Dr. Deborah Bronk MEES ‘92
President and CEO, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

Dr. Deborah Bronk is president and CEO of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science in Maine. She has conducted more than 50 research cruises and field studies in freshwater and marine environments that stretch from pole to pole during her three decades of experience as an oceanographer. In December 2020, she was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and recognized for her substantial research advances on the marine nitrogen cycle and for leadership in the ocean science research community. She earned her Ph.D. from the Marine Estuarine and Environmental Sciences (MEES) graduate program.

When did you first realize you wanted to be an oceanographer?
Watching The Undersea World of Jacque Cousteau.

What has your career looked like? What are your greatest accomplishments so far?
My career has far exceeded my expectations! I started my Ph.D. with the goal of working for a consulting firm, but then I discovered I loved foundational research. Growing up, I didn’t know any scientists so I had this misguided view that you had to be a genius to do research. I’m smarter than the average bear, but I’m no genius. At Horn Point I learned that creativity, hard work, and stubbornness were even more important to success. 

My greatest research accomplishments were to develop the methods necessary to show the fallacy of the belief that dissolved organic nitrogen is a large refractory pool of nitrogen that doesn’t do much. We now know that organic nitrogen compounds support phytoplankton and bacterial growth in aquatic systems and that release rates of these compounds are just as high.  I am also very proud of my students and the great work they are doing in the world.

I have always believed in service, and it is through service that my career has taken the most unexpected turns. I became involved in science societies early on and believe they are important for young scientists, particularly women, to help them build their networks. This eventually led to my election as president of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO). It became clear that ASLO’s business model needed to change if the society was going to not just survive but thrive, which led me to an interest in the financial side of science. Then my name come up as a possible candidate for NSF service, where I eventually went on to serve as section head and then division director of Ocean Sciences. This is where I caught the administration bug.

Being in a position to do good things for the science community was thrilling and something I missed when I went back to full-time research. When Bigelow Laboratory came knocking looking for their new CEO, I threw my hat in the ring. In many respects everything I have done up to this point has prepared me for my current position and I am loving it!

What areas do you study? Why do they interest you?
As a researcher I studied nitrogen and its role in microbial food webs. All living things need nitrogen so it is a research area with lots of theoretical and practical importance. 

Nowadays I feel like I’ve gone back to graduate school in that my job is to study and represent all of the research at Bigelow. I read much more broadly than I did before and also try to follow world events and the politics affecting science. For an hour each morning I have my Sacred Reading Time scheduled in my calendar, which I devote to the pile of magazines, journals, newspapers, and research repapers on the growing stack next to my morning coffee chair. If I could do one thing differently from my research days, I would have started this habit long ago. There is just no substitute for a non-optional focused time to read and think before you get into your day.

Since your time at UMCES, you’ve held several leadership roles, from department head Virginia Institute of Marine Science, president of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, now president of the Bigelow Laboratory. What has the transition from research to leadership been like? What insight can you give to STEM students looking to be future leaders?
Leadership is not what I thought it was when I was younger. As a new faculty member running my own lab, I was so stressed thinking I should know it all. The older I get the more ludicrous that sounds. If you approach leadership from the standpoint of humility with an honest goal of being of service, it removes much of the pressure.

Be willing to find and listen to others with the knowledge or skills required for any situation. Also, don’t be afraid to fail. If you do, own it and move on. Most of all – don’t be a jerk. If you behave like a jerk, own it, apologize and move on.    

What inspires you most about your work? 
The depth of concern my colleagues and our supporters have for what’s going on in the world. As environmental and climate change scientists, in a very real sense the work we do today will impact the future of humanity. It is both daunting and incredibly motivating.  

How did your time studying at UMCES in the MEES program influence your career path?  
Horn Point was such a supportive environment to do research. Everyone helped each other, and we just had a ton of fun doing it. That community spirit is something I have taken with me and have tried to promote throughout my career wherever I have landed. I also am still a firm believer in the importance of a good holiday party!

What’s your advice for the next generation of scientists who are pursuing their degrees or graduating now? 
Love the people you work with, even the ones you don’t like very much. With the planetary degradation we are facing, it is an all-hands-on-deck moment. This isn’t the time for competition. It is a time to do everything you can to advance your own work, in whatever role you chose to play, and to extend your hand to help your colleagues do the same.