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.

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.