Flippers up! Diving into the Marine Science Center

A researcher dives into Nahant Bay. Photo via Northeastern University.
A researcher dives into Nahant Bay. Photo via Northeastern University.

A researcher dives into Nahant Bay. Photo via Northeastern University.

About 35 minutes north of Boston sits one of Northeastern’s single greatest gems. Perhaps once it’s best kept secret, the Marine Science Center is now going through a serious coming of age, nearly fifty years after it was established. With the kick-off of the Urban Coastal Sustainability Initiative last year, the MSC has been growing at leaps and bounds both psychically and academically.

Yesterday, I and a gaggle of folks in my office journeyed up to the center to immerse ourselves in its goings-on. In my six back-to-back meetings, in which I learned about everything from the 3 Seas program to faculty research to upcoming events and programs, one thing became increasingly clear: people at the MSC are living the dream.

In one meeting, a woman shook out her hair and apologized unnecessarily: “I just got back from a dive,” she said. That’s the first great thing about the MSC: between the bustling lunch hour and daily underwater adventures, it feels, at least to an outsider, like year-round summer camp for grown-ups.

But behind that jovial exterior is a whole lot of work. And this brings me to the second awesome thing about the MSC: collaboration. In the last year, the center has brought on seven new faculty members, a hiring rate of epic proportions. This speedy growth has allowed the center’s director, Geoff Trussell, to establish a focused group of researchers with shared expertise and interests all striving toward a single, if broad, goal: to understand the ecology of near-coast habitats in the era of climate change.

Some of these researchers are looking at individual near-coast species like corals or snails; others are looking at how environmental conditions like ocean salinity and temperature affect those species. Still others want to understand how the data stored in these waters can help us predict the future for the habitats and organisms within. Some researchers are building robots to tackle these questions; others are using genetics and bioinformatics. A whole other piece of the puzzle is how the humans living and working on the coast are impacted by the marine environment, and how climate change’s impact on the environment will impact the people. And, of course, the MSC’s got people thinking about that bit, too.

Together this collection of researchers is bringing together everything from biology, ecology, and engineering to sociology and policy.

In the last several years it has become increasingly clear that if we’re to understand a biological system—be it a single organism or a community of individuals—we need to look at all its pieces as an integrated whole. As I was speaking to all the cool folks at the MSC yesterday, it occurred to me that no one person can possibly tackle such a heavy task on his or her own.

That’s why places like the Marine Science Center and the collections of researchers they house are such special and important places right now. The MSC is an interconnected system of thinkers, all working together to generate a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts, just like the systems they’re studying.

Like I said, they’re living the dream.