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Maryland loses pioneering Chesapeake Bay scientist Michael Kemp

October 27, 2020

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) Professor Emeritus Michael Kemp, a pioneering ecosystems ecologist and world leader in conducting research on the ecology of estuaries, has passed away after a courageous battle with Parkinson’s disease.

"Michael Kemp made his mark during his long and distinguished career as one of the most outstanding systems ecologists in the world working on coastal marine ecosystems," said Peter Goodwin, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "For over 35 years he led his field, conducting cutting-edge research that has influenced our understanding and management of the Chesapeake Bay, as well as estuaries around the world. He was also recognized far beyond Maryland as a class act for his collegiality, scientific curiosity and his mentorship of early career scientists.”

A pioneering researcher on Chesapeake Bay health and restoration, Kemp made significant contributions to the understanding of nutrient cycling in estuaries, the ecology and physiology of submerged aquatic vegetation, and the metabolism of estuarine ecosystems, as well as the causes of hypoxic waters and declines in aquatic plants in estuaries.

Working out of UMCES’ Horn Point Laboratory on the Eastern Shore, Kemp's research on nitrogen cycling in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to the global understanding of the importance of sediments in nutrient cycling. His research has also made substantial contributions to understanding the global increase in coastal hypoxia and how nutrient reductions can lead to improvements in water quality. His seminal paper “Eutrophication of Chesapeake Bay: Historical trends and ecological interactions” is a landmark synthesis for anyone interested in Chesapeake Bay and the impacts of humans on estuaries.

Longtime friends and colleagues Walter Boynton and Michael Kemp were co-recipients of the Odum Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation.

During his 35-year career, Kemp was invited to collaborate with scientists working in Australia, China, Denmark and Mexico. He served on the editorial boards of two scientific journals and organized and led several national and international symposia on estuaries. In 2012, he was awarded the University System of Maryland’s highest honor, the Regents’ Faculty Award for Excellence, in recognition of outstanding research in the fields of ecology, marine science, and environmental science. 

In 2009, he was the co-recipient with Walter Boynton of one of the most prestigious awards in his field of research, the Odum Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, for their outstanding and prolonged contributions to estuarine science. Together they provided years of applied research to management agencies such as the Chesapeake Bay Program and Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Both had also been students of H.T. Odum, the scientist who founded the award, making its presentation to them even more meaningful

He also had a distinguished record of teaching and mentoring students, including advising 24 graduate students and many undergraduate summer interns.“One of Michael’s great joys of working at UMCES was his mentoring and interactions with students. His door was open to all students and he took interest in learning about their research projects,” said Michael Roman, Director of UMCES’ Horn Point Laboratory. “We are most grateful to Michael for his scholarship, mentoring and community engagement.”

Kemp began his long and distinguished career at UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in southern Maryland as a post-doc in 1977 and moved to the Horn Point Laboratory on the Eastern Shore in 1978 to join the faculty as an Assistant Professor. He retired in 2017 and was appointed an Emeritus Professor before moving to Charleston, S.C.

Our thoughts and well wishes go to Michael’s wife Laura Murray, also a valued member of the UMCES faculty, and to his son Cullen. As a legacy to his many contributions to graduate students, Michael Kemp’s family has created a fund to support Horn Point Laboratory graduate students in his name, the Michael Kemp Student Fund.