Joe’s Journal

Meet Bigelow Lab’s new boss

Posted:  Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - 10:00am

The smile is the first thing you notice about Deborah Bronk. It sits just below her twinkling eyes that seem to dance as she talks about her new job as president and CEO of the East Boothbay research heavyweight.

For the record, she is also excited to be on the Maine coast, thrilled with her new house, and delighted with her new hometown.

Hiding behind that warm smile is a professional woman with a scientific resume as long as your arm. It includes stints as the division director of Ocean Science for the National Science Foundation, and a term as president of a top ocean science professional group known as ASLO.

For the record, she explained that ASLO stands for the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography. Limnology is the study of fresh water. Oceanographers study the sea.

Bronk was born in Wisconsin, and grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, where her dreams were filled with the siren call of the ocean. As others fawned over rock stars, she fixated on Jacques Cousteau. His love of the sea and the creatures that lived there just funneled her into ocean science.

Her distinguished career has taken her around the globe from the Antarctic to Barrow, Alaska, a Boothbay-sized town where the folks leave their doors unlocked when they go outside, just in case a polar bear decides to drop by for lunch.

“I quickly got over thinking polar bears were cute and cuddly creatures,” she said.

“The NSF job was great. For four years, I was in charge of a $356 million budget and worked 18-hour days helping people do science. At ASLO, I got to fly around the country and meet and talk with others in the field.”   

After her term in the big jobs, she went back to her old day job as a distinguished professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.

In 2016, a friend who worked at Bigelow invited her to come to Boothbay over the July Fourth holiday. “I spent a magical week and was blown away. I knew Bigelow by reputation, and found a small town that I liked even if I had to shovel the drive,” she said.

After Bigelow’s respected president, Graham Shimmield, died unexpectedly in December 2016, a headhunter called her and wondered if she might like to take a crack at the vacant position. She would, and she did.

Last fall, after she was hired, she looked at a waterside home highlighted by a little brook. “I fell in love with the land. I would have bought it if it had a dump on it.” The brook sealed the deal.

“At my old home in Virginia, I had a clock radio that played the sound of a babbling brook. Here, all I have to do is to open the window to hear that sound.

“I also liked Bigelow. It was started by a pair of rebel oceanographers, Charles Yentsch and his wife Clarice. It was designed by scientists for scientists,” she said. Charles Yentsch was Bigelow Laboratory’s executive director from 1974 to 1987.

Because Bigelow is not affiliated with a larger institution, like a university, she explained that the director does not have to fight a huge bureaucracy to get a project approved.

“Bigelow is very productive and the scientists have great ideas. We have to be nimble and efficient (to survive).”

In many ways, a research scientist runs a small business. He/she has to find grants or other funding, then hire a team to do a project.

Once, she described her job this way: answer important questions, keep everyone in the lab fed, use science to serve society, and be an ambassador for science. At Bigelow, one of her biggest jobs is to raise money “to keep the lab fed.” How do you do it?

She answered with a grin. “You have to talk to the right people.”

So you told us about Dr. Bronk, the scientist. What about Dr. Bronk, the person?

Raised in Nashville, she grew up a fan of bluegrass and acoustical guitar music. She has three beagles and a lab/chow mix that is very protective. Oh, and she is a princess.

A princess?

“My sister lives in Slidell, Louisiana. This year she is the queen of the town’s 2018 Mona Lisa Moon Pie Festival. She talked me into being one of her princesses, so, in a few days, I will go down there and ride on the float with her.”

Other than practicing her royal wave, Deborah Bronk has another chore. She has to attend a Washington, D.C. meeting before she flies to Slidell.

And her princess costume is scheduled to be delivered to Maine while she is in Washington.