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Sea Worthy

J. Frederick Grassle, the founding director of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, is one of the nation's most celebrated oceanographers.

J. Frederick Grassle
Fred Grassle, founder of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, is revered among colleagues for having coordinated disparate research efforts into the Census of Marine Life. Photography by Nick Romanenko

Jesse Ausubel still remembers the date: July 2, 1996. Fred Grassle was visiting Ausubel at his office at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Both were leading figures in American scientific circles. Ausubel was a researcher at the Rockefeller University and a program manager with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a major sponsor for scientific research. J. Frederick Grassle, a celebrated oceanographer, was the director of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers. Grassle had come to see Ausubel to discuss—to lament, really—the fragmented nature of oceanographic research around the globe. We don’t know how much is out there, Grassle grumbled, and what we do know is scattered across laboratories on five continents. But Grassle had a plan.

What if, he asked Ausubel, we recruit the best marine scientists on the planet to collaborate on a research project, the scope of which has never been attempted? Their conversation lasted no more than 90 minutes. Yet, it led to a decade of pioneering research known as the Census of Marine Life, in which 2,700 scientists from 80 nations conducted more than 540 expeditions and identified 1,200 new species. Ausubel came to recall that initial meeting with Grassle with a reverence normally reserved for holy figures. “Your visit to the second floor of Swift House the afternoon of 2 July 1996,” he wrote to Grassle a dozen years later, “was for me like the arrival of one of the Magi.”

Grassle has that effect on people. Maybe it’s his big, easy smile. Maybe it’s the spark in his sea-blue eyes. “We used to go out a lot on research vessels,” says Rose Petrecca, a senior marine scientist who worked with Grassle at Woods Hole, where he spent the first two decades of his career, before following him to Rutgers. “The ship’s crew would just love it when they saw Fred’s name on the schedule, because they knew it was going to be such an exciting cruise. He just energizes people.”

Over his 45-year career, traveling the globe to study the world’s oceans, and to advocate on their behalf, Grassle has shown an uncommon gift for collaboration—all in the service of no less noble a cause than the advancement of human knowledge. At Rutgers, Grassle is most well known for founding, in 1989, the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, today one of the leading oceanographic research centers in the world and part of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. There’s a reason the institute’s headquarters on the G.H. Cook Campus in New Brunswick is known as the House That Fred Built.

“We expect people to interact with one another,” Grassle says, explaining his interdisciplinary approach to research. “Ideally, you can take on a big question from lots of different directions with people with different skills and different knowledge.”

Grassle applied the same big-question rule to the Census of Marine Life. Under his guidance, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, an offshoot of the census, evolved into the world’s largest open-access repository of marine biological data. “Fred was really willing to give the time to a leadership role,” Ausubel says, “not just in an intellectual sense, but in organizing and chairing meetings and traveling around the world as an ambassador.”

In 1979, Grassle led the first biological expedition to study newly discovered forms of marine life near hydrothermal vents—cracks in the ocean floor that discharge hot-water springs—off the coast of the Galápagos Islands. The trip was documented in Dive to the Edge of Creation, an Emmy Award-winning film, and the research it produced reshaped our understanding of marine life. “The deep sea was thought to be impoverished,” Grassle says. “But the diversity of life in the deep sea is higher than anyone expected. It’s as high as in the rain forests or the coral reefs.”

Grassle arrived at Rutgers with a reputation as a world-class oceanographer. During his nearly two decades as the institute’s director, Rutgers oceanographers established an underwater observatory off the coast of Tuckerton, New Jersey; began work on an eight-foot-long, torpedo-shaped research vessel that became the first unmanned submersible to cross the Atlantic; and created the Coastal Ocean Observation Lab (known as the COOL room), described by its founder, professor Scott Glenn, as “the most advanced ocean observatory on the planet.” Since stepping down as director of the institute in 2008, Grassle has received some of oceanography’s most coveted awards. Last fall, the Japan-based Expo ’90 Foundation presented the International Cosmos Prize to the scientific steering committee of the Census of Marine Life, of which Grassle served as the first chair.

Perhaps Grassle’s most significant contribution to oceanography has been his influence on scores of students, many of them now accomplished scientists. Paul Snelgrove first worked under Grassle at Woods Hole and followed him to Rutgers, where they coauthored many scientific papers. To this day, Snelgrove keeps a photograph of Grassle and his wife, Judith, a Rutgers research professor at the institute, in his office in Newfoundland. The picture was taken in the rose garden at Woods Hole on September 16, 1995—Snelgrove’s wedding day. Snelgrove says the photograph reminds him of the type of scientist—the type of person—that he aspires to be. In the picture, beneath a sunny sky, Fred Grassle is smiling that big, easy smile. •

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