LabOratory Podcast

Lab Entry #2: Dr. Judy McDowell Part 1

January 25, 2020 LabOratory Podcast / Judy McDowell Season 1 Episode 2
LabOratory Podcast
Lab Entry #2: Dr. Judy McDowell Part 1
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode we interview Judy McDowell, a Biologist and Scientist Emeritus with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who furthered the studies of adaptations of marine animals in naturally fluctuating conditions and environmental disturbances. We talk about her experiences in Woods Hole at the Oceanographic Institution, her appreciation for Rachel Carson, and how she has studied and shaped Environmental Policies throughout her career

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Rene:   0:00
Hi. I'm Rene.  

Sam:   0:01
Hi. I'm Sam.    

Rene and Sam:   0:02
And this is Laboratory Podcast!

Sam:   0:34
Welcome to Laboratory Podcast.

Rene:   0:34
Exploring the human side of science

Sam:   0:34
With recorded interviews of emeritus and retired scientists on the evolution

Rene:   0:34
And history of scientific research throughout their careers.

Sam:   0:40
Hello. We're recording this in the new year in 2020. How are you, Rene?  

Rene:   0:45
I'm good. I'm already a little tired in 2020 but good. How are you?  

Sam:   0:51
I'm pretty good. Do you have any New Year's resolutions?  

Rene:   0:53
I don't I don't really do New Year's resolutions. I've always been a firm believer that if you want to make a change in your life, you can do it on any day that you choose to make that change and you don't need to wait for the new year. However, I think that New Year's resolutions are a great way for people to motivate themselves to make a change if they need that motivation.  

Sam:   1:16
I think so, too. I think it's a nice time to reset and set your mind and motivate yourself to do new things or to clean up old things. What have you.  

Rene:   1:27
Do you have any New Year's resolutions?  

Sam:   1:29
I always want to work out more. I always want to eat better. I always want to be kinder.  

Rene:   1:36
Well, those are good things to do any day of the year.  

Sam:   1:38
It's true. But every year I feel like I reset and I try to focus on being a little bit more mindful, little kinder and a little bit more healthy.  

Rene:   1:47
Oh, how nice of you.

Sam:   1:50

Sam:   1:53
Today we're talking to Judy McDowell, a scientist who has spent much of her life studying in the Northeast in Woods Hole in particular. Rene, how did we find her?  

Rene:   2:01
So Judy was suggested to me from a few different folks here in Woods Hole. And I knew that she had recently given an interview for Triple A - S.  

Sam:   2:10
What's Triple A-S?  

Rene:   2:11
Triple A-S, is the American Association on the Advancement of Science, and she gave an interview for them for their women in science issue. So I figured she may be willing to conduct an interview with us, and I had actually run into her a few years ago at our local coffee shop when I was enquiring about possible fellowships and jobs here. But I'm not sure she remembered me from then when I asked her about the podcast. So I decided not to be awkward and to not bring it up  

Sam:   2:40
And what better way to play it cool, then, by bringing it up now. 

Rene:   2:43
I am nothing if not cool.  

Sam:   2:45
I think you're cool.  

Sam:   2:46
Well, Judy was an excellent interviewee, and here she is, in her own words, explaining a bit about her life and how she became a scientist.  

Judy McDowell:   2:54
My name is Judith McDowell, and I've been in Woods Hole since the summer of 1975 that came to Woods Hole for a year as a postdoctoral scholar, and I thought at the time, How would I get enough ideas to make a career as a research scientist off what I haven't run out yet  and I'm still going Well, my career focused on physiological adaptations of marine animals and how these adaptations allow them to survive and reproduce in response to a wide range of environmental stressors. I have worked on air, you know, nutritional deficiencies, habitat change, hypoxia and exposure to chemical contaminants. Since I was a child, I have always been interested in solving puzzles, reading mysteries, asking questions and scientific research encompasses all those attributes. Discovery, exploration and inquiry. My mom studied zoology in the 19 thirties, and even though she never followed a career in marine biology, she knew Ah lot about marine biology. And she you taught her Children the uniqueness of different tide pools, what each creature in the tide pool waas and how it survived and so forth. So from the age of three, I was exposed to my first high pool and I was often running. I received my undergraduate degree from Stonehill College in eastern Massachusetts, where I majored in biology in minored in chemistry and philosophy. And then after graduation, I went to the University of New Hampshire, where I studied comparative zoology and comparative physiology, and I received my Masters in PhD in zoology from Unh. I just celebrated my 50th graduate 50th reunion from graduating from college. And, uh, when you think about being a college student in the 1950 in the 19 sixties, we had very strict dress codes. We had very strict curfews. Um, and women were not encouraged to pursue science and engineering. If you pursued science, it was to either be a medical technician or a nurse.  There weren't many opportunities for women in science and engineering disciplines. Um, I always thought that was wrong. So the career path, because I was always interested in science, is no way I was not going to pursue a career in science. And I really don't like the sight of blood. So it was not gonna be a medical career, and it was not gonna be with large vertebrates. It was going to be with something small. My fascination with tide pools really let me too much greater interest in the environment and how environmental factors, you know, changed, um, the physiological processes of organisms. So, um, it's a mentioned. My mother had studied zoology, So she certainly is the first to introduce me to the whole world of the marine environment and encouraged my interest in the sea. And both she and my father were the type that say, you know, don't follow the norm, you know, do what you want. And my father grew up in New York City during the Depression, And he probably had a far more difficult time during the Depression as a young student than my mother, who grew up in rural New Hampshire. So he only had money to go to school for one year. And, um then he got a job on the Grace lines and he sailed on cruise ships, has a stored and, um, that took him through about the time the World War two started, and he learned languages on his own. He spoke seven languages and because he was so good with languages when he, um, joined the Army Air Corps, which eventually became the Air Force, they said, You're too good with ink. We're not putting you on a battlefield. We're putting you where you can listen to messages, you know, wired messages and translate them. So he spent three years in India in which he says he will never. He's passed away now, but he said the smells of India, beautiful jasmine and the not so beautiful cities is what impressed. So he also I'm He was a talented artist. He brings of the Taj Mahal. He kept journals in India, and again, you know his interest. Waas pursue what you feel you do best. So both of them were very nurturing and encouraging. And you their paths. Probably if they hadn't. It wasn't the Depression. If there wasn't the war, their past probably would have gone in different directions. But they may not have met one another. So, uh, you know, I credit them is really being an inspiring and encouraging on the way most of the time since I left Unh. Um, I've been in Woods Hole at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but I also taught at to Massachusetts State University's firming him State and Bridgewater State. And as a post doc in Woods Hole, I taught the Marine science classes for See Education Association. We help on my bicycle from Shore Street to Fisher House. Teach my class, then get on the bike path again and go to my lab on the Question campus. I've also held adjunct positions at Boston University and the University of New Hampshire.

Sam:   9:14
Judy painted quite the picture about what life was like in Woods Hole during her time here that I had to ask her more about what life was like a WHOI  and what she had learned about the place during her stay. She's learned quite a lot about the village and the science that has happened through the years and explains how it became the oceanographic hub it is today.  

Judy McDowell:   9:33
The first laboratory built in Woods Hole, WAAS. The Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. Um, you know, in the mid 19th century and the Marine Biological Laboratory was built in the late 19th century. Um, so there there's always a focus on on research and education. Um, Luis Agassi brought teachers from City of Boston to learn about the marine environment. And there's some classic pictures in the NBL archives off women with, you know, starched collars and long dresses. Long skirts hold up to their knees so that they could go into the Inter title. Male teachers with start shirts and ties, suit jackets all in the Inter title. Um, so this thrust of marine education and marine research is a long standing, um, focus of a little village. But it was also the candle house of MBL was where whaling ships would bring sperm CT from sperm whales that they had harvested and that that was literally a candle house. They stored the sperm, a CD this sperm oil, sperm, whale oil there and made candles there. And if you go in that building, those stones air about 18 inches thick. It's really, you know, very classic, um, kind of storage facility back in the 19th century. Um, and then so since wth e m b Marine biological laboratory and you're of commercial fisheries now in the national ah Fisheries service. Um, since they were instituted, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was built in 1930. See? Education Association came in 1970 off the U. S. Geological Survey rent space from the Oceanographic Institution. Um, which Hole Research center was established in the mid 19 eighties? And so, you know, it continues to be that focus off education and research. It's a very busy place, especially in the summer, But the atmosphere of working really has not changed. You know, the, um, the flexibility of pursuing what you want to pursue that your major interest, um, at the Oceanographic Institution is very supportive. You creativity you have on the interdisciplinary studies that people pursue. You're working with engineers, physicists, chemists, biologists. You know. So really, there's a very cooperative spirit. A formation of the oceanographic institution came out of a National Research Council report that was chaired by the director of the Marine Biological Laboratory at the time and for, or an ocean going institution. It's the deports that you know where the Elizabeth Islands come in and the woods hold channel that makes it attractive. I also makes it attractive that the scientific institutions universities in Boston, Harvard M I t, um, and elsewhere in New England, you know, people would come here and study in the summertime. Uh, and I guess, just the the attraction of the village of really being a small peninsula of the offered access to the sea and access to, you know, the intellectual talent academicians in the city. Um, what the Marine biological laboratory focused on WAAS using marine animals is biomedical models, so they could easily send out the squid boats every day to get squid toe work on the giant excellent or sea urchins toe work on embryonic development. So each institution has slightly different thrust. Um, but the village itself and the geographical location of the village really supports those different endeavors. So then and one is here, so then another one comes in, and then another one coming? Yes, yes, they're all independent, but they collaborate. Well. Henry Bigelow was from Harvard. Um, Mary Sears, first woman scientist here was from Harvard. And so, um, in my cheese staff, you know, who were the oceanographic Institution and M. I .T. sponsor Joint Graduate program in Ocean Science and Ocean Engineering and the M .I .T .faculty would come here for the summer, So they're so many close collaborations.

Rene:   14:46
When we asked if Judy had any scientific mentors, as she was growing up that stood out to her, she mentioned that other than her parents being great role models, the person she looked up to the most in the sciences was Rachel Carson. For those who don't know, Rachel was not only , the author of Silent Spring and See Around Us. But she was also a brilliant scientist who worked at multiple research institutions here in Woods Hole. Here's Judy discussing why Rachel was such a role model to her.  

Judy McDowell:   15:17
I have to say, you know, I never met Rachel Carson, but I mean, she is another hero to me had read all of her books when I was in elementary school in high school and Silent Spring Stands out, is probably the most influential in shaping my future career interests. Rachel Carson was a fisheries biologist. She worked for what we Bureau of Marine Fisheries, and she spent some summers in Woods Hole. And there's a beautiful bronze statue on Waterfront Park and Wits Hole. That's Rachel, and she was very petite, not quite as petite Azad statue, but she was very petite, but she you know, she was known for her. Helen's in in interpreting data, fisheries data and, um, you know her careful analysis of samples. But she was also an excellent writer, and I think she's probably better known in public because off her prose she wrote many books, Um, that you ended up on The New York Times bestseller Natural History books on like Sea Around us. Very beautiful prose describing environment, Um, but because of her, you know, real talent for observations, she started to notice changes in communities and habitats related to DDT spring. She started to see differences in bird populations. Um, she started to see onus, you know, in families who were near you, farming families who were near DVT spring and so in silent Spring she really documented not only the loss of wildlife but the loss of livestock. Um, in human health concerns associates associated with DDT poisoning. And so again, her beautiful prose and talent for, you know, scientific inquiry. Um, she wrote Silent Spring. Uh, even before the book went to press, the chemical industry launched a vicious campaign against her. You know, it's saying that she was just hysterical. Woman didn't know what she was talking about. They threatened her with lawsuits, attacked her credentials, advised the press to display miss her as hysterical woman who didn't know what you're saying and even suggested that she might be a Communist. But Carson's publishers stood by her work, and her work was. Her book was published, and since the publication of Silent Spring in 1962 as a scientist as a writer, she inspired a whole new interest in environmental science, environmental policy, environmental work. And so I, you know, the really credit, um, Carson with being kind of the the initiator of a whole environmental movement that would certainly take another decade to fully develop. Um, but you know, at the time that she was battling the chemical industry for discrediting her as a scientist discrediting hers. Oh, biologist. She was also battling breast cancer. And, you know, she died in 1964 long before her legacy. You know, when in launched an environmental movement had really even been recognized. And so, you know, I look at Rachel Carson as someone you know who really inspired a whole generation to look at our current policies in launch, you know, better regulation of air, water, drinking water, our lands, our coastlines, you protected habitats. And so, to me, she was that inspiration that in spite off old she faced, she kept pursuing what she knew was the truth. There's lots of questions that people could raise about DDT, you know? Yes, it probably saved millions from malaria, but the way it was applied, um, was not carefully regulated. I mean, if it had been used only for the purposes for which it was most effective, it would probably still be used today. But you know the adage, well, if a little works, all lots gonna work a lot better, you know, Is this kind of where we really need to rethink our use of chemicals in the environment? Um So you know. Yes, She she waas you know, quite a hero home and quite an agitator. Um but is she really she really, launched, I think in many respects the environmental movement of the seventies and eighties

Rene:   20:29
as Judy was entered in graduate school, it was the midst of the beginning of the environmental movement, motivated by the societal issues of the time. When thinking about what should be interested in devoting her studies towards the questions of the chemistry behind environmental problems the Earth was facing was extremely intriguing to her.  

Sam:   20:49
Also, as she'll explain the world around her was in a state of tumult. It was the time of the Vietnam War, and she and her generation were looking for a light at the end of the tunnel. Or at least some way they could right the wrongs of their current reality. I find it admirable that Judy wanted to take on studying the environment during such a stressful time and be that change she and so many others wish to see in the world I real again.  

Judy McDowell:   21:14
Again I was always interested in asking questions. And so, with Carson's legacy and realizing the work that needed to be done. I graduated from college in 1969. You know, many of my classmates were going off to Vietnam. Many of my high school classmates who had already gone to Vietnam, you know, have been killed. Um, and so it was a very tumultuous time in many respects, but, you know, the environmental movement was starting. So I decided to take my science background and go to university in New Hampshire in study fields where I could really learn more about the chemistry off environmental problems and how the environment responds to insults in the environment. So I did that. And after completion of my PhD, I spent a year teaching, uh, marine biology and invertebrate zoology. And then I came to whistle. You know, I have lost a lot of basic research interests. Um, but you know, the protection of the environment, um, understanding, you know, chemical contaminant. Studying in the environment has always been very interesting to me. Um And so in the early seventies, I felt that whole field was at a critical turning point. It's when you had clean water act passed Clean Air Act passed home, and it's why I feel bad you know, after all the progress we've made in 50 years, it really does heartens me today that Trump revises the regulations that we've had in place. You know, he's gone back to taking us back 30 years in terms of water quality standards. And, you know, I think that it's short sighted to not see that we don't see drinking water contamination. What did exist and seriously exists. We don't see air pollution, but it exists. We don't see habitat change, but there is lots of degradation of the environment. Certainly have many colleagues in the oil industry, and they've, you know, they support, you know, sound environmental policies and practices. They're not behind a lot of these to ignore climate change right now, is they? They know that is not something that is either popular with the public or is going to sustain our environment. But I think we current administration is cobbling too impacts profits. Then it's not good. So I think we need to go back to where we've come. I mean, you can be profitable, you could be sustainable and you can still protect the environment. I think that's something that we really have to him impress on students today, you know, and the next generation that you can have prosperity. But you live on a fragile planet and you have to protect it. And you have to manage it, you know, not just for us, but for future generations. One of the things that she was really difficult to understand is that, you know, like from the toxicological literature you can you can look at like, you know, damage to wood, an organism impact of reproduction on organism or impact on development. But translating that to how a community of organisms responds or populations of organisms. Response is always quite difficult because, you know, you need a long term exposure an impact. So those terms of you know, making those kinds of predictions and assessments is universal. And it is one of the things that is most difficult to do, like, um, looking at an oil spill impact, Um, the immediate damage is obvious. The longer turd iam Longer term damage is not so obvious, And in some areas, populations recover very rapidly and other areas it's decades before they recover. So, understanding those dynamics and what's what's unique about the environment, where there's rapid recovery versus those that time. So you really get into this geographical, um, comparison, the vehicle systems, how those ecosystems function. What are the driving factors towards recovery? Recovery is a policy issue.

Sam:   26:20
This is all really fascinating because, as she's mentioned, we are currently in the middle of our own administration, rolling back the environmental acts put in place while she was attending school.  

Rene:   26:31
And this is especially interesting to her because when we asked where her research has taken her over the years, she focused on how it took her out of the laboratory and into the policy world where she became involved in policy discussions, especially those focused on the environment.  

Judy McDowell:   26:50
My research has taken me around the world. I have colleagues on every continent, it's allowed me to contribute to national and international environmental policies, and this that's one thing that you know, my my research is scientific research. But I've been engaged in so many national and international groups that because of my research, they wanted my insight on policies. So that was all you know, extra. I mean, I would you know, I'm not a policy person, but I've served on many panels on, you know, to discuss and environmental policies and environmental management. And I like working with teams off different disciplines. So I've been on international boards with anthropologists, chemists, modelers, physical oceanographers, meteorologists, you know, discussing, like a particular region and what needed to be done from that region. So that was all, you know, really exciting. Uh, extension of my work. Um, you know, I've contributed to dozens of, like, policy documents like that 

Rene:   28:09
Now, leaving the policy world and going back to the laboratory.  

Sam:   28:13
One of the questions we always like to ask her interviewees is how science has changed throughout the years. And Judy was ready with several great anecdotes regarding not only how technology has changed. But how people have changed as well.  

Judy McDowell:   28:27
Well, I certainly can, you know, certainly molecular biology. Um, throughout the sixties, see the powerful, you know, analyses that could be done with you understanding the structure of DNA. And you know how you could begin to apply it in biomedical, huh? Treatment and understanding the growth of cells, understanding how cancer functions. But there was very slow adoption of these tools, you know, in the Ocean Sciences. And I remember a faculty member that we had our staff member that we had hired specifically for these tools was very difficult for him to acclimating to the department. People's haven't understand coming from and stuff. And so, you know, it took us several tries to actually successfully engage someone in the department, too, you know, not only pursue molecular techniques and whatever questions that they were dressing, but you see those transfer to a wider range of laboratories, and now it's very common. But it was it was a struggle. I mean, there were several attempts that, you know, we're only partially successful. When I first came here 45 years ago, um, I proposed to develop, you know, a micro rest barometer by by which I could begin to assess, You know, the metabolic requirements of individual plankton and people are. That's nothing today! I mean, that's just easy. Um, you know, today's advances in molecular biology of lot of allowed us to study gene regulation and protein synthesis. The technological advances and sensors allows us to remotely detect so many different parameters. I mean, you know yourself with the you know, the Twilight Zone how much? We don't know, but how much we will know over the next few years. So technology has certainly had tremendous. I analyzed all of my thesis data for my PhD on my $500 Texas Instruments calculator, which was such a big deal back then. And I remember when I fought a first bought a Packard desktop computer for a laboratory. People were in awe. You know, no more punch cards and things like that. And now you know, you have the power of in a laptop that tremendous more computing power, then what we had back then. So certainly, um, advances in traditional biology have transferred over to marine biology, oceanography, environmental biology and you know, things that you couldn't even possibly think of in looking at individual genes. Protein turnover in very small samples. That certainly has been a tremendous advance, you know. Also, I think one of the most exciting days in what hole I was sitting in Redfield Auditorium and Bob Ballard had just come back from a geology cruise where they first saw the hydrothermal vents and there were no biologists on the cruise, and he came back. It was like Christmas. He's showing the slides of the species that no one even knew what they were. And, um, you know, So that inspired me. That was 1978. I've been here a few years. I'm thinking, you know, there's great discoveries still to be made as an observationalist, there's nothing that replaces observation. And so you know, the classic approaches to understanding morphological changes, physiological changes. They now could be power that they can be coupled with much more powerful tools at the cellular and sub cellular level what they don't replace. Ah, real holistic understanding of how processes air integrated at different levels of biological hierarchy. I mean, the observation in the Twilight Zone, is open your eyes to, you know, a lot of different types of off organisms processes of a interact together. So observation is never gonna be replaced completely. And and I I always stress students that it was always interesting. We would have journal clubs, um, discussion of papers and the mindset for the students would be only since you know, publications that have been published while they're scientists are the only ones of interest. The thinking Well, I want you to read this paper from like 1928. They went, And so you don't lose sight off how the field has evolved. And, you know, even if something was very descriptive and very observation Aly based not experimentally based, it still has quite a bit of information to offer s to the environment that you're studying. 

Rene:   34:11
Taking a page from her teaching, let's see how Judy has applied this focus on observation to her own work.  

Judy McDowell:   34:18
My first project as a post doc, Istudied, um, the bio energetic ce off larval development in crustaceans. And you know, you're common. Um, expectation would be, as each marvel stage grew or a Z organism grew is you'd see, like a linear relationship between size and a particular physiological parameter. And when I looked at lobster larvae, that was true up through the point at which metamorphosis took place totally shifted. And and I know somebody else was working this in this same time and different laboratory in different species, and they just said, Well, that was not that was an anomaly. And I went No, you know, it's not an anomaly. And so that led to what happens that metamorphosis and, you know, lots of things happened at metamorphosis. And so then that got me intrigued about the insect literature and metamorphoses and how energetic pathways, you know, shifted after med Amores. He's changing habitats. You're changing, you know, your complete, energetic strategies. So, um, I could have just ignored the data, but if so interesting to see that there was this oddity that no one else had reported. And so then I ended up looking, you know, at a number of different species, your pre and post metamorphoses started to see the same  

Rene:   35:55
Hey there, laboratory listeners. We're going to pause right here. Thanks to her experiences and insights from over the years, Judy had so many interesting stories to share that we decided we just couldn't contain it into one episode. Therefore way have split her interview to two parts. So stay tuned for the second half of her interview, coming out shortly where we discussed the folks of the scientific community, diversity in science and what exactly the word research means.  

Sam:   36:29
We're new podcast, so please support us. You can visit our website at 

Rene:   36:44
Head on over to our instagram and follow us @laboratorypodcast

Sam:   36:48
check out our Facebook page by searching for laboratory podcast.  

Rene:   36:52
Feel free to email us at  

Sam:   36:57
That's it for this week. But stay tuned to listen to the rest of Judy's interview soon to come, as well as other amazing scientists or streaming wherever you listen to your podcasts.  

Rene:   37:08
I'm Rene  

Sam:   37:08
And I'm Sam. This has been laboratory podcast, and this has been our latest lab notebook entry. Thanks for listening.

LabOratory Podcast Intro
Welcome Introduction / New Year 2020
Sam and Rene Dive into the Podcast and Introduce Judy McDowell
Judy McDowell on how she became a Scientist
Judy McDowell on the History of Woods Hole and the Oceanographic Institution
Judy McDowell on Rachel Carson
Judy McDowell on Graduate School, Vietnam, and Environmental Politics
Judy McDowell on where her work has taken her
Judy McDowell on how Science has changed throughout the years
Judy McDowell on the importance of observation, and her post doc studies.
Rene Outro - Judy McDowell To Be Continued
Sam and Rene Outtro