Get to Know a Scientist Emeritus—Mike Bothner

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This is the twelfth in a series of Get to Know posts highlighting and celebrating the contributions of exemplary Scientists Emeriti.  Their work, experience, and contributions are essential to the mission of the USGS. 

The USGS program in marine geology was barely a decade old when Mike Bothner joined the Woods Hole science center in 1974. His innovative research, commitment to the USGS mission, broad smile, and enthusiasm have been a vital part of our center for 47 years and counting. Mike's career illustrates well how the USGS fosters creative minds that can take on all kinds of interesting and societally relevant problems. The diversity of Mike's research, including his recent work on mercury in our local fish, is impressive. Mike also drove the development of novel sampling equipment that was needed to answer critical scientific questions, which exemplified how our research, technical, and engineering staff work together to solve complex problems. Mike has long been a source of inspiration and mentorship. He has a broad network of internal and external collaborators that value his work, and Mike continues to crank out high-quality data and interpretive products. 

Rob Thieler, Ph.D. 
Director, Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center 

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Mike Bothner

Mike Bothner, making a presentation on the USGS capabilities in multidisciplinary coastal research at the conference, “Oceans for the new Millennium” held in the Cannon House Office Building, US House of Representatives, July 18, 2000. Photo Credit: David Scavone. 

What attracted or brought you to work for USGS in the first place?  

It was during my first college geology course that I became aware of the outstanding research and products generated by the USGS. Later, as I was finishing a post-doc on mercury pollution at the University of Washington Oceanography Department, Thane McCulloh, a senior USGS scientist, moved into an office near my lab. Since he also put in late hours, we became acquainted. He informed me that the USGS Office of Marine Geology in Woods Hole, Massachusetts was expanding its study of the Outer Continental Shelf in anticipation of offshore drilling. The timing was perfect, and the location was ideal. I was well aware that the USGS was one of four major marine science institutions located in Woods Hole. I boldly requested an opportunity to give a job talk at a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution seminar and made sure the USGS knew about it. It all led eventually to an offer, an instant acceptance, and the start of a most enjoyable career. 

How long did you work at USGS before you retired and how long have you been an Emeritus?  

I worked at USGS for 37 years, and I have been a Scientist Emeritus for almost 10 years. 

What was your last title/position at USGS before you retired and became an Emeritus?  

Research Oceanographer. 

What Science Center do you answer to as an Emeritus?  

Mike Bothner: hydraulically damped gravity corer

The hydraulically damped gravity corer was designed at USGS, Woods Hole, to collect sediment cores up to 50 cm long with minimal disturbance of material at the water-sediment interface. Mike Bothner (yellow hard hat) is overseeing deployment in Massachusetts Bay by the able crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter White Heath. Photo Credit: Dann Blackwood.

I have been with the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center (WHCMSC) for a total of 47 years. 

Describe a highlight of your career. 

The 18-year study of pollution and pollution abatement in the Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay, initiated and led jointly by me and Brad Butman (also from the WHMSC), is a career highlight. This harbor was one of the most polluted in the U.S. at the time. As we summarized in the foreword of the final report of this study (USGS Circular 1302), it was a highly successful cooperative among congenial scientists representing different disciplines. It was also a model partnership between federal, state, and private entities including the USGS, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Requiring more than 55 cruises throughout all seasons, we mapped the geology of the seafloor, carried out long-term oceanographic and geochemical observations, and developed numerical models of sediment transport. Our goal was to understand the distribution, transport, and fate of contaminants in this coastal system that has received waste since colonial times. The application of program results saved millions of dollars of public money in construction costs during the $4 billion modernization of Boston’s wastewater-treatment facilities. The program also documented reductions in contaminant concentrations in harbor sediments, provided scientific information in public forums, and improved our understanding of where and how contaminants accumulate over long time periods. It was tremendously satisfying for participants in this USGS-MWRA-USCG-WHOI partnership to contribute, with the efforts of so many others, toward a cleaner, healthier coastal environment. 

What led you to decide to become an Emeritus?  

Mike Bothner

Mike Bothner (left) with Dirk Koopmans holding a striped bass he caught for the mercury project in the tidal currents of Woods Hole channel. Leading such “sampling cruises” is one of my great pleasures. Photo Credit: Sandy Brosnahan. 

At the time I decided to retire, there were a few science projects I wanted to finish and a couple of new ideas that I have always wanted to explore. The Emeritus position has provided an opportunity to address these goals, while still allowing time to complete entries on my life-time bucket list that are unrelated to my day job.  

What exciting research or service activities are you currently working on, and what are you planning for the near future? 

The project of highest priority at present, and for the near future, is to continue measuring the mercury concentrations in local marine fish. Striped bass are prioritized because of their commercial and recreational importance, as well as their elevated mercury concentrations. Recent publications indicate that 75% of striped bass larger than the 28-inch size limit have mercury concentrations above the 0.3 parts per million consumption advisory set by the U.S. EPA. In addition, I hope to determine how mercury concentrations in striped bass are changing with time in response to the changing atmospheric flux of mercury due to reduced mercury emissions regionally. 

What do you enjoy and appreciate the most about being an Emeritus?  

The office and laboratory in Woods Hole have always been a welcoming environment where pleasant and productive exchanges with co-workers are frequent. The continuation of these exchanges, even at lower frequency during pandemic restrictions, has helped maintain my general optimism and positive outlook. In addition, I appreciate the more relaxed Emeritus schedule and the freedom to focus on work while at work, relatively unburdened by administrative tasks.  

What type of mentoring or outreach activities do you currently undertake as an Emeritus?  

I continue to enjoy discussing research goals, analytical techniques, and field methods with colleagues, graduate students, and post-docs. High school science fairs are an important activity in this community – I have often advised and supervised analytical work for high school students in support of their projects. 

I also participate with a local climate change awareness group that is organized to increase community understanding and acceptance of global climate change. The group, made up of representatives of area churches, has the goal of collecting educational materials that illustrate how climate changes are impacting the environment and life in the immediate present. This information will be presented in local community forums. We are also exploring the ways in which citizens can make a difference at the community level; for example, by advocating for adoption of green building codes in Cape Cod towns. These codes will reduce or eliminate carbon emissions from newly constructed homes. 

Have you had any great career mentors, and if so, what made them great? 

Undergraduate biology Professor Jim Moulton introduced me to oceanography during my senior year at Bowdoin College, first in a seminar, and then when I participated as his assistant during a six-week biological sampling cruise through the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. I skipped my graduation so I could participate in this opportunity. Shared time at sea revealed how deeply and joyfully Professor Moulton was committed to his science. I witnessed his high standards for both quality and quantity of work accomplished at sea. His teaching style was also admirable. He told me that he reviewed lecture notes until he could feel a flame of enthusiasm and confidence in the middle of his chest. Then he knew he was ready. 

What is your best advice for early and mid-career scientists?  

Mike Bothner

In 1999, I joined Mike Field’s team of scientists working on the USGS Coral Reef Project off Molokai and Kauai, Hawaii.  Saying yes to this opportunity was career enhancing. Here Mike Field (left, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center) is discussing objectives of the next dive with Curt Storlazzi (center, also PC&MSC) and Mike Bothner off Molokai’s southern shore.  Photo Credit: Rick Rendigs.

Don’t be reluctant to say “YES” to an invitation to participate in a new research program. Of course, each new commitment must be weighed against current obligations, but if there is a good fit with your collaborators, and if your potential contribution fires you up, then there is a high probability of success. New opportunities allow for discoveries that are both exciting and career enhancing. 

In the excitement of new research, however, it is essential to exercise discipline in completing current work. K.O. Emery, a renowned marine geologist at WHOI, once cautioned, “If it doesn’t get published, it never happened.” 

If you could give your 18-year-old self, some useful advice, what would it be?    

We have three grown children who previously were recipients of my advice – advice that I have accepted myself, but not as early as age 18. Would other parents agree that it’s a surprise and a pleasure to learn which nuggets of advice you offer to your children actually stick? Some time ago, with an appreciative smile, my son recited three statements that he had heard from me. “Don’t fall in love with your bed,”  “Always leave the table a little hungry,” and “Prepare for each oral presentation as if it’s a job interview.” The last one, in particular, has been important throughout my career and, I’m told, during my son’s career as well. 

Mike Bothner

Uh-oh! It is never a good time to be stuck on a savanna, especially with a leopard nearby. No people, animals, or vehicles were harmed in this incident. Photo Credit: Mike Bothner. 

Where did you travel last, domestically or internationally?  

My wife and I feel extremely fortunate that in June 2019, just months before the coronavirus outbreak, we traveled for six weeks in Uganda, east Africa. The primary objective — and highlight —was to visit our daughter who works for a NGO in Mbale, Uganda. Over the past four years, she has developed a program to bring hope and restoration to children in conflict with the law. Through rehabilitation programs at the regional juvenile detention center and prevention programs in the community, the goal is to break the cycle of poverty and crime among vulnerable teenagers. The observations of poverty and need that these programs address are unforgettable, and the demonstrable positive changes resulting from her team’s efforts are uplifting. 

Another bright spot was touring Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park where a park ranger drove us through the vast and beautiful savanna starting at sunrise. The classic African animals were in abundance and close enough to photograph from the dirt road. When requested to provide a clearer view of a leopard resting on a low tree limb, however, our driver ventured off road and near an unseen aardvark hole that suddenly collapsed, temporarily consuming the rear wheel up to the axel! Against the advice of the agitated ranger, everyone bolted out of the tilting van loudly asking questions and making suggestions in a variety of languages. During this confusion, the leopard was seen leaving its perch with a head shake –in apparent disbelief–and then, fortunately, continuing away from the tourists! 

How are you spending your time during the pandemic? 

The office lockdown has increased the time spent on non-science tasks. Satisfying outdoor home projects for me have been: tending a high-bush blueberry patch (featuring the DELICIOUS Herbert variety), growing vegetables, and focusing on the layout, design, and installation of solar panels on this old house that is not ideally suited for solar.   

Indoor work includes writing down family stories, some of which were told to me in my youth, and some that I’ve experienced myself. I am driven to do this to prevent their loss. Other family members, although geographically dispersed, are active reviewers, so this is one more enjoyable focus of family discussions on Zoom during the pandemic-imposed isolation. 

Mike Bothner

Early morning during a spectacular game drive on the savanna of Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. Photo Credit: Mike Bothner.