Scientist Deborah (Debbie) Bronk joined Bigelow Laboratory in Boothbay as president and CEO in February. We met her just a few days after she delivered a talk titled “Nitrogen to the Rescue: How Arctic Ice Reduction is Fertilizing the Sea” as part of the popular Cafe Sci summer lecture series at the Boothbay oceanographic institution. Any fears we might have had of nitrogen pop quizzes we’d fail were quickly put to rest; Bronk is a scientist first, but in her new role as an administrator, she’s all about explaining – and facilitating – Bigelow’s broader mission.

SOUTHERN COMFORT: Bronk was most recently at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, specifically at the attached Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences. She relocated from Hampton, Virginia, to the Boothbay area in the dead of winter (brave) and recently bought a house on Barters Island, where her four dogs can run with abandon and the neighbors expect everyone to show up at potlucks. “It’s non-optional. I love it.” She’s a Wisconsin native who grew up in Nashville and dreamed of studying whales and dolphins. But her research has focused on something much smaller: the microscopic organisms at the bottom of the food chain. Specifically, how nitrogen controls the growth of phytoplankton.

WELL DEFINED: Her research has taken her all over the world, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. She was an active member of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (and its president from 2010-2012). OK, there was a pop quiz because Bronk asked if we knew what “limnology” means. Not really. “It is the study of inland waters and lakes. Basically, inland oceanography.” The work she did with that organization was a big time commitment. “So my lab got used to being independent.” That was a good thing when the National Science Foundation, the government agency that supports research and education in the sciences, beckoned her to the Washington, D.C., area in 2012.

PURSE STRINGS: She took a leave from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences to work for the National Science Foundation, where she ultimately oversaw a $356 million annual budget. When you’re in a position like that, high up in the National Science Foundation, does every scientist you’ve ever known start hitting you up for grant money? “Yes, but I could not give out any money.” She moved from section head to division director for the foundation’s Division of Ocean Science. Rather than allocating the funding – there were panels making those decisions – she oversaw approvals of those decisions. Quite a few of them: 1,857 such approvals in 2014 alone. “That was insane, but also inspiring, because there are so many great ideas out there.”

A DOOR OPENS: The experience of working for the National Science Foundation – and as she puts it, it’s really serving, since these are government jobs – opened new doors for her. She wouldn’t have come to Bigelow if she hadn’t gone there first, she said. And attitudes. “I realized I probably had the attitude of a lot of scientists, that administration is the dark side.” Not exactly the Evil Empire, but “I thought if you were to move into administration you were kind of walking away from this intellectual pursuit.” It wasn’t. “What I found is, it is the same kind of exercise as when I am in my lab, working with my nitrogen update spreadsheets.” How so? There, she was trying to figure out where the nitrogen was going. At the foundation, “I had the same kind of spreadsheets, where I am trying to figure out where the dollars are moving, and how we can fund this really cool thing.” The intellectual challenges were more alike than she expected.

SLEEPY TIME: She stayed with the foundation until early 2015, commuting between an apartment close to the foundation’s headquarters in Alexandria and her home in Hampton. “When I left NSF I went home and slept 18 hours a day for almost a month.” She’d earned the exhaustion. “The thing that was so intense about NSF was that it was finite. If I didn’t get stuff across the finish line, it wasn’t going to happen.” Back in Virginia, her research lab was still running, and while she didn’t teach, she had been reading student manuscripts and papers on the weekends.

MAINE CALLING: When she got the call from the search team recruiting for the leadership job at Bigelow, she had visited Bigelow only once, to give a talk in 2016. But she knew of it. “It has a reputation in the field of being kind of the Wild West, honestly. It was started by these two kind of rebels, Clarice and Charlie Yentsch, who said, ‘We don’t want people telling us what to do. We are going to do it a different way.’ ” And what she knew, she liked. “This place just blew me away.”

ARCTIC ADVENTURE: But, she said, it was slightly bad timing. “I was going to spend five weeks in the Arctic.” Working on some nitrogen research, namely studying some microscopic organisms in the Arctic that she’d discovered on an earlier trip were capable of fixing nitrogen (in much the same way that soybeans fix nitrogen in a farmer’s soil). “In the ocean, we had thought that they only existed in the tropics.” But here they were, in the Arctic, and she had a date to take measurements. At this point in our conversation, the sound of (electronic) applause issued from the phone on Bronk’s desk. She explained that she uses pan flute music in the morning to help her take a deep breath and concentrate on what’s to come. “In the afternoon, I need more than a pan flute. I need applause.”

NITROGEN BABIES: She went on with her research while thinking about the possibility of taking on a job at Bigelow. As a scientist, she already had so much faith in Bigelow that she was sending her samples from the Arctic to Boothbay for analysis. “You spend five weeks in the Arctic and those are your babies. The thought that I would mail them somewhere and trust someone else to do the analyses is pretty amazing.” And as a hybrid of someone with administrative experience and decades as a scientist with a lab, she thought she’d fit in well. Probably better than someone with purely administrative experience. “I think the SRS would eat them alive.” SRS, is that a Bigelow monster? “Senior research scientists.” She speaks their language. “Coming in as a scientist, I know how I want to be treated as a scientist.”

BRAG ON BIGELOW: Bigelow is a soft money research institution, she explained, and its scientists are salaried for only seven weeks a year. (She’d like to bump that up.) “So we rely primarily on grants.” With no professor’s salaries to fall back on, it makes the Bigelow scientists’ (there are 44 PhDs in the building) push to not just write a good grant but to deliver the goods, scientifically speaking, very important. “They can’t afford not to be successful.” And they are, she said. “Let me brag on Bigelow.” Success rates for scientists applying to the National Science Foundation – i.e. how many grant requests go in versus how many are funded – tend to be in the single digits, or maybe, she said, the low teens. At Bigelow: “Three years, ago it was 25 percent, last year it was 32 percent, and this year we are approaching 40 percent.” Bigelow is at the top of its game, she said. Now she’s the team captain.

 

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