UC Davis Mourns Loss of Marine Biologist and Ocean Health Advocate

Williams was known for her passion for research, community engagement and mentorship. Courtesy photo
Williams was known for her passion for research, community engagement and mentorship. Courtesy photo

Faculty, staff and students gathered at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory today not for their weekly seminar, but to remember their colleague Susan Williams who died in a car crash Tuesday (April 24) while en route to the Davis campus to teach.

She had made the trip countless times, devoted to her teaching as much as her research. But this day, she would not make it — killed in the early morning on Lakeville Highway in Petaluma. Police said a pickup crossed the double-yellow line and struck Williams’ car head-on, setting off a six-vehicle pileup. Three other people were injured.

Williams, 66, a distinguished professor of evolution and ecology and an inspired proponent of marine education and ocean conservation, joined UC Davis and the Bodega Marine Laboratory in 2000 and served as the lab director until 2010, when she returned to full-time research and instruction.

“This is a tremendous loss for students and her colleagues at both the Bodega Marine Laboratory and on the Davis campus,” said Mark Winey, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, administrative home of the Department of Evolution and Ecology as well as the Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute. “Her scientific excellence, outstanding teaching and caring mentoring will be missed."

Williams is survived by her husband, Bruce Nyden. Memorial service information is not yet available.

Saving the oceans through science

Williams takes sediment measurements from a seagrass plot in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Williams takes sediment measurements from a seagrass plot in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Williams, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (elected in 2006) and the California Academy of Sciences (2003), demonstrated how seagrass and seaweed could aid the restoration of damaged habitats. These ocean plants provide valuable resources to coastal systems, such as protecting coral from pathogens and absorbing carbon dioxide. Williams’ research helped reveal how the strategic planting of seagrass could buffer, and, in time, can help offset the destructive impact of human activities.

“She was among the most renowned marine ecologists in the U.S. and the world,” said Gary Cherr, who succeeded her as director of the Bodega Marine Laboratory. “She was somebody who has been tremendously impactful in terms of research — restoring habitats in degraded environments — and impacting state and national policy.”

During Williams’ tenure as the lab director, she prioritized community engagement and outreach to build support for marine conservation. She championed the sharing of science as an essential tool to raise awareness for ocean health.

“Susan was passionate about everything she did, and her passion was contagious,” said Professor Richard Grosberg, director of the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute. “Few others could claim such an extraordinary career, combined with an unrivaled devotion to changing the way people from all walks of life understand the ocean, and the essential resources it provides us all.”

Public servant and mentor

Williams was instrumental in demonstrating the impact that ocean health holds for local communities. In 2010, she was the recipient of the Academic Senate’s Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award for her longtime efforts to increase protection of coastal waters. She lent her expertise to successful legislation expanding the boundaries of two national marine sanctuaries off Northern California: Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank.

Upon stepping down from her leadership role at Bodega Marine laboratory, she dedicated herself again to teaching as well as developing entry-level curricula for marine biology programs to inspire undergraduate students.

As a mentor, she championed inclusion and diversity in the sciences. “She mentored women scientists around the world, not only graduate students at Davis,” Cherr said. “She came out of an era where women scientists were second-class scientists. She empowered them to be leaders in the field.”

The Consortium for Women in Science at UC Davis honored her as an outstanding mentor in 2009.

Cale Miller, an ecology graduate student at UC Davis, bonded with Williams as a fellow first-generation college student. Her hope and positively for the future of the oceans, and the world, left a lasting impact.

“She had an ability to not perceive a problem or difficult situation as insurmountable,” Miller said. “Her approach to such things will be a model for how I move forward in my professional and personal life.

A distinguished career

Upon Williams’ arrival at the Bodega Marine Laboratory in 2000, UC Davis issued a news release describing her trajectory in ocean science: “Since earning a doctorate in botany and marine biology at the University of Maryland in 1981, Williams has taught and conducted research at major marine laboratories in Alaska, Hawaii, New England, Texas, Washington, the Caribbean, Japan and California. She has lived aboard research ships, scuba-dived, traveled to 3,000 feet in a submersible vessel and lived and conducted research in an undersea habitat for four weeks.

“Her career has been distinguished. When she earned her master’s degree at the University of Alaska in 1977, faculty members named her the Outstanding Student in Oceanography. At San Diego State in 1993, students named her Outstanding Biology Faculty Member.

“She served that same year on a panel of eminent scientists appointed by the assistant secretary of the Interior, and this year is a fellow in the Aldo Leopold Fellowship in Environmental Leadership.”

She served as president of the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation from 2009 to 11, and received CERF’s Outstanding Leadership Honor in 2011 and Distinguished Service Award in 2013.

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“New Bodega Lab Director Turns a Love of the Ocean Into Her Life’s Work”

New Boat Opens Door to Mysterious North Coast”

This story originally appeared on UC Davis News.

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