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April 24, 2014

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The "other" Woods Hole

By Joanne Niswander

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the summer-vacationing side of Woods Hole, the tiny Cape Cod town I've been enjoying since the first of June. And it really is an ideal vacation spot, with gorgeous weather this year being a big plus. But now it's time to tell you about the unique place that Woods Hole presents to the scientific community.

Now, I'm about as far from being a scientist as one can get - music, art and writing take top priorities for me. But my daughter, a research scientist, is co-director of the embryology course here at Woods Hole this summer.

For the past decade, she and her family have been coming here to work for part of the summer. This year they invited me to come along, so I'm just tagging along and, in the process, getting a taste of a new kind of community. So let me tell you about the Other Woods Hole.

Outside the window and across the Eel Pond, I can see several large buildings that overshadow the rest of Woods Hole's short main street. These buildings belong to three different scientific institutions that are the life-blood of this community: the NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) Northeast Fisheries Service Center, the Marine Biological Laboratory, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Only recently have some of us become aware of the importance of preserving our renewable resources. But already in the mid-1800s the US government was studying the problem of the diminishing supply of fish in some areas of the seas. So the first federal fishery laboratory was established, in 1885, by the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries. (The laboratory continues to this day, under the direction of NOAA).

Woods Hole, Massachusetts, was the selected site for this early fisheries project. Why Woods Hole? Because of the stability and purity of the seawater here. The warm waters of the Gulf Stream collide with the colder water from the north - and there are no large rivers in this area to dilute the seawater. So it is perfect for culturing and experimenting with live marine animals.

Shortly after the establishment of that first government project at Woods Hole, an independent group decided to establish a center to study marine biology. The Marine Biological Laboratory's first building was erected at Woods Hole in 1888 and, over the last century, MBL (as it is called) has become one of the most prestigious centers for research in the biological sciences.

MBL attracts scientists from all over the world who come to Woods Hole to teach, to do research, or just converse with other scientists. Graduate students come to learn from eminent scholars and to exchange ideas with fellow students. In summer, the campus is buzzing with activity from morning until late at night.

The third institution to make Woods Hole its home is the Oceanographic Institute, formed in 1930. In addition to formal educational programs, the institute's fleet of ocean-going vessels cruise the world's oceans studying ocean currents, the composition of seawater, bottom topography and much, much more. Since the oil spill in the Gulf, you may have heard references to the work of scientists associated with the Oceanographic Institute.

In addition to these three prestigious claims to fame, Woods Hole is home to a large Coast Guard station. There is also a Children's School of Science that operates every summer, opening a world of hands-on science to a younger generation. (Incidentally, that school got its beginnings as early as 1913, at the instigation of four Woods Hole women who understood the importance of summer education for the children.)

So here I am in Woods Hole - a landlubber unschooled in science but surrounded by sea and scientists. A fish out of water? Perhaps. But enjoying every minute of being here.

What to do?? Sit on the dock and watch the boats, read one of the many books the local library has to offer, take a walk along the shady streets, pick up an almond croissant at Pie in the Sky, even take in a Friday evening open-to-the-public science lecture (a 120 year tradition) and learn a little.

No matter which Woods Hole one comes to visit, it's a good place to be in summer.

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