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Symposium focuses on marine science — and the women who are diving in

KARA LAVENDER LAW, a research professor at the Sea Education Association, told interested listeners about her personal and professional relationship with ocean plastics, during the Clifford Symposium at Middlebury College this past weekend.

MIDDLEBURY — Dan Brayton had a number of goals in mind when he organized last weekend’s Clifford Symposium at Middlebury College, whose theme was “The Future of the Global Ocean.”
“I wanted to showcase a variety of cutting-edge marine science, and I wanted Middlebury students to know what’s going on out there — and what’s possible,” said Brayton, a professor of English and American Literatures and the program director for the Environmental Studies Department, on Tuesday. “I also wanted to try to tell the most complete story about human impact on global oceans.”
Happily for Brayton (and his “secret agenda,” as he playfully described it), the speakers who came to campus to help tell that story share one thing in common beyond their status as oceanographic “heavy hitters” — something that tells a story in and of itself.
They’re all women.
For a research field that has historically set high entrance barriers for women, this is a big deal.
“This was not a ‘boys in boats’ symposium,” Brayton said, smiling.
Nor was it aimed at an exclusive audience of science experts.
“That’s the one thing I requested,” he said. “‘Explain things so that an English major with no science background can understand them.’”
And the speakers did just that.
Randi Rotjan, a research assistant professor at Boston University, introduced the college community to the largest and deepest UNESCO World Heritage site on earth, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in the Pacific Ocean.
Lisa Gilbert, an associate professor of geosciences and marine science at Williams-Mystic, Williams College, turned them on to deep-sea hydrothermal vents and volcanoes.
The symposium’s keynote speaker, Kara Lavender Law, who is a research professor of oceanography at the Sea Education Association, wove personal-professional reflections into the history of ocean plastics science.
And Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center on Cape Cod, unpacked the extraordinarily complicated science that connects melting Arctic ice with such “extreme weather” phenomena as the “polar vortex,” which deniers of climate science often (and incorrectly) suggest is proof that the Earth’s atmosphere is not warming.
The scientists were a hit, not only with the college community but also with local students, including Brayton’s daughter, Nell, a ninth-grader at Middlebury Union High School, who brought along some of her friends.
“It was so great to learn more about the science of climate change on the same day (Sept. 20) as the climate strike,” Nell said. “I wish every one of the strikers could have gone to (Jennifer Francis’) talk about the jet stream. The whole country should have heard the presentation on melting ice in the North Pole and the jet stream, because then people who doubt the science of climate change would see how global warming sometimes actually causes cold snaps.”
The talks were really inviting, she added, “and I really liked it that the scientists were all women.”
Of the three events Nell’s friend and classmate Dahlia Harrison-Irwin attended, Francis’ talk was also her favorite.
“Before going to this talk, I knew that climate change was real, and I knew the dangers that it posed to our world, but I had never known the exact science behind it,” Harrison-Irwin said. “Understanding the science and seeing numerical figures about where our world is headed made me want to show everyone this presentation so they can see the irrefutable proof that science shows us.”
In addition to the talks, two panel discussions — one on whales and one on coral reefs — featured the work of Middlebury students and faculty. Screening of the film “Chasing the Thunder” — a real-life high-seas eco-thriller — kept audience members on the edges of their seats.
Overall, the symposium “went ridiculously well,” Brayton said.
Among the weekend’s many successes: The majority of audience members asking questions were women.
Two women also deserve credit for pulling off this year’s symposium, Brayton said: Environmental Studies program coordinator Lily Hunt, who handled the myriad and complex on-campus and travel logistics, and Associate Dean (retired) Elizabeth Karnes Keefe, whose professional connections brought this year’s symposium to life.
“(‘Chasing the Thunder’ filmmaker) Mark Benjamin is a long-time friend and former colleague (of mine at PBS New York),” Keefe explained. “When he told me about his film, I determined that it should be shown at Middlebury. I contacted Professor Brayton and from that the idea of the symposium, with multiple elements relating to the global ocean, was born.”
That a Global Climate Strike happened to be scheduled right in the middle of the symposium turned out to be a blessing rather than a curse, she said.
“When the symposium was originally scheduled, we did not know about the timing of the Climate Strike,” she said. “However serendipitous, it became clear that the timing was fortuitous and the symposium added a specific and special layer to the climate events unfolding at the same time, locally and globally.”
The symposium is an annual event named for the late Nicholas Clifford, who taught history at the college from 1966 to 1993 and who, in his many years as a member of the faculty and administration, cultivated critical inquiry at Middlebury.
For more information, including videos of the presentations, visit https://cliffordsymposium.middcreate.net/2019-symposium/.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]

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