Profile on Rabalais by A.J.S. Rayl

Profile of Nancy N. Rabalais, Ph.D.

Executive director, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), Chauvin, La.

Water has forever been a central feature in the life of Nancy Rabalais. Born in Wichita Falls, Texas, the second of four children, to Stephen Anthony Nash and Kathryn Charlotte Preusch, she grew up “moving around Texas,” but somehow was fortunate to land near the water when she was 13.

Her father was a self-taught mechanical engineer who lived something of a nomadic life working on oil drilling operations for Tenneco Oil, and he moved the family with every change in assignment. Despite the moves, the four Nash children were blessed with the stability and constant presence of a mother who kept the household in classic (though not Leave it to Beaver perfect) American style, circa 1950s.

One move young Nancy never forgot was to Lafayette, Louisiana. “It was the first green place I ever lived,” she remembers. But they would only be there only a year. “My early schooling was a series of schools, as we moved from place to place,” she says. “I went to five different elementary schools and two middle schools before the family settled down.”

When she was in junior high, her father took a job at the Reynolds Metals Company near Corpus Christi, Texas. Finally, the family put down some roots, and Nancy would live there with her family until she left home for good. “The pivotal person in my upbringing was my eighth-grade biology teacher,” Rabalais reflects fondly. “She just turned me on to science, and I was hooked on biology. It was that year I decided I wanted to study biology.”

Nancy stuck with her decision through high school although she nearly got lured into math. “I also have very fond memories of a very tough Algebra 1 teacher in ninth grade,” she smiles. But, with “two really good years” of biology in high school, biology became the path forward, a path she earned by working. She paid her own way through college. “I had a heavy work schedule and a heavy study schedule, but I also spent a lot of time at the beach and learned how to scuba dive,” she says. At the same time, a lot of her undergraduate coursework was marine-oriented and that translated to “a lot of field trips into the bays and estuaries in Texas.”

With most of her time spent doing things associated with the water, her major in biology naturally leaned toward marine science. She found enough time off not studying to get married and went from being Nancy Nash to Nancy Rabalais in 1971 during her junior year. The following year, she earned her B.S. from Texas A & I University in Kingsville in 1972, but decided to continue her education. She earned her master’s degree in 1975 from the same institution, working her way through the whole time. “It just sort of all came together,” she says.

Rabalais’s first job out of college was working as a naturalist at Padre Island National Seashore. By 1976, her marine training and ability to identify marine organisms landed her a new job—checking out organisms in mud samples from the Gulf of Mexico as a pre-assessment for oil and gas development—in Port Aransas, Texas. She began to work on her Ph.D. there in 1979, spending one year in Austin on academic work.

Since the University of Texas did not offer a doctorate degree in marine science, Rabalais majored in zoology with a minor in marine sciences. After completing her dissertation on the physiological ecology of an endemic fiddler crab in the semi-arid coastal areas of south Texas, Rabalais received her Ph.D. in 1983 from the University of Texas.

Fully degreed, she moved to the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie in 1983, where she continued research on offshore oil and gas environmental impacts, further studies of crustaceans, including stone crabs and blue crabs, and benthic ecology in the plume of the Mississippi River. But her life was about to take a couple of turns, personally and professionally.

Shortly after that move, Rabalais and her husband went their separate ways, divorcing in 1984. The following year she met R. Eugene Turner as a science colleague. They were married in 1988, but she decided to keep her name since she had already published under it. Their only child, Emily Kathryn Hana Turner—“our best reprint ever,” she says—was born in 1989.

In Turner, she found a partner for life. “Gene has been instrumental in my career and life as a husband, friend, and science colleague,” she says. “Our work on the Mississippi River and the hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico is as a duo; Gene focusing upstream while I focus on the offshore end,” she says.

Initial funding for what turned into her lifelong research theme was secured by the then-director of LUMCON, Donald Boesch. Hailing from the Chesapeake Bay and a Louisiana native, Boesch knew there was an incipient dead zone offshore most likely related to the increasing nitrogen from fertilizers in the Mississippi River. With the help of Louisiana Senator John Breaux, Boesch and Rabalais received funding from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Rabalais turned her focus to investigating the long-term environmental changes offshore associated with changes in the Mississippi River. She would research the human impact on the river and its eventual creation of dead zones, or areas of low oxygen, known scientifically as hypoxia.

“One of the other things this work has done for me is help me grow up as a scientist, to take a more overall view of relationships among the components of ecosystems,” she says. “This is a huge ecosystem—going from Montana and New York to the continental shelf of the Gulf of Mexico. And also it’s such an important issue.”

“Water is life and is to be celebrated,” Rabalais says. And she does. Every year, she takes part in an annual water ceremony. “Each summer, I collect a small container of water from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, in the low oxygen area, and take it to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Baton Rouge,” she says. “Water samples from the current year’s travels, from important events, are poured together in an urn with water saved from the previous year.” The water she adds from the dead zone, serves, she says, “as my intent to continue to work for water quality in the Mississippi River watershed and its coastal ocean.”

Rabalais challenges students in her lectures to say what they can do to reduce their part of the nutrient overload in the Earth’s ecosystem. Do you or your parents fertilize the lawn? Do you know where the lawn runoff goes? What type of a vehicle do you drive? Come on, tell the truth! “There is always a bicycle rider in the class,” she smiles. What is your diet like? Lots of corn-fed beef, pork, or chicken? How do you vote? She does have room to talk.

At home, Rabalais uses no fertilizers on the yard, composting organic waste instead and is as energy- and water-efficient in the home. She recycles everything, drives a sporty 33-mpg Acura, and eats little meat, especially beef. “My life is certainly not minimalist,” she says, “but I do not feel I am extravagant or wasteful.”

The unknowns about the relationships between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico and the research she does on them drive her, she says, and getting the science information generated from it to the public and the policy makers who decide water quality regulations motivates her. “I strongly believe that the science and information generated from research should be shared with the public, from K–12 to Congress, water quality managers, and teachers, basically everyone. I consider it part of my responsibility as a scientist to make sure that the information I’ve generated, most of it with federal funds, gets back to the community.”

Getting the information out isn’t always as easy as it might seem. “There are a lot of challenges,” Rabalais says. In recent years, for example, there has been “a lot of denial,” she says, with environmental findings. Worse, policymakers have not dealt with the source of the problem: “too much nitrogen and phosphorus running off the heartland of America,” as she puts it. Rabalais works hard to keep people honest with data, taking her responsibility as a scientist-citizen as seriously as her research. “I’ve been the target of many unpleasant situations and comments,” she sighs. But, she musters through by being professional, doing the work and producing the science.

Rabalais has written nearly 100 peer-reviewed papers, authored or edited three books, Environmental Studies of a Marine Ecosystem: South Texas Outer Continental Shelf, which she co-authored with R. Warren Flint (1981); the voluminous Long-Term Environmental Effects of Offshore Oil and Gas Development, co-edited with Donald Boesch (1987); and Coastal Hypoxia: Consequences for Living Resources and Ecosystems (AGU Coastal and Estuarine Sciences), co-edited with R.E. Turner (2001). She has also written 28 book chapters.

Today, Rabalais serves as executive director, as well as professor, at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, where she also continues her research into aquatic ecology, continental shelf ecosystems influenced by large rivers; hypoxia; estuarine and benthic (or sea floor) ecology; and the integration of science and policy.

Being in an administrative position as director of her marine lab, Rabalais faces challenges she never knew before. “We're a stand-alone facility and we have our own dorms, cafeterias, our own ships, we pay our own water bills, and we have scientists who bring in outside money for research. There’s just a lot to balance.” And just like everywhere else, balancing the cost sheet these days is tough. “I’ve said ‘no’ a lot recently, and it just doesn't seem like I’m saying it enough,” she says.

Dollars and cents aside, Rabalais loves her work. “In the end, science is a collaborative medium. I don’t do this alone,” she says. Being part of a team has brought meaning to her life and made changes in the water world around her. “I enjoy being a scientist,” she says, pausing. “I like making a difference.”

In 1999 Rabalais was recognized with an NOAA Environmental Hero Award and an Aldo Leopold Leadership Program Fellowship and shared the $250,000 Blasker Award for Environmental Science and Engineering with her husband and colleague, Gene Turner.

Rabalais is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a past president of the Estuarine Research Federation, a national associate of the National Academies of Science (NAS), a vice-chair of the Scientific Steering Committee of LOICZ/IGBP, and a past chair of the Ocean Studies Board.

She is currently on external advisory panels for the National Sea Grant Program, the National Research Council (NRC), and the NSF Environmental Research and Education directorate, and is a member of SCOR WG 28 on coastal hypoxia. She received the 2002 Bostwick H. Ketchum Award for coastal research from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the 2008 Clarke Award from the National Water Research Institute, and the 2008 Ruth Patrick Award from the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography.

A.J.S. Rayl is a freelance science writer based in Malibu, Calif. She has written on assignment for a variety of magazines, including Air & Space, Astronomy, Discover, Reader’s Digest, and Smithsonian, as well as online ventures including the Planetary Society’s website, http//