My four decade friendship with Susan Williams

Bill Dennison ·
3 May 2018


The recent news that my good friend and colleague Susan Williams was killed in a car accident on her way to give a lecture felt like a punch to my stomach. I was amazed, but upon reflection, not surprised at the amount of deep sentiment that this news provoked with my colleagues. Susan was a wonderful colleague in many ways to many people. She was a great mentor to many students and provided real support and encouragement. Susan was also a leader and a great role model for women scientists. She was elected to leadership positions on scientific societies such as President of the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, and served as the head of the marine lab Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory.

Susan Williams and Bill Dennison at Coastal and Estuarine Federation conference; Providence, RI; November 2017. Image credit Judy O'Neil.
Susan Williams and Bill Dennison at Coastal and Estuarine Federation conference; Providence, RI; November 2017. Image credit Judy O’Neil.

But most of all, Susan was a good friend. She was always aware of the bigger picture of the lives of her colleagues and we always shared what was happening with our lives. Our careers were intertwined, and multiple times we worked at the same institutions, but at different times. We collaborated on several projects which were always enjoyable and productive.

But most importantly, Susan was my great friend. There will undoubtedly be numerous tributes and scholarly assessments of Susan’s scientific impact, but I want to share a bit about my long friendship with this special woman. As I wrote to her husband Bruce Nyden, I loved Susan — she was not just an amazing scientist, she was a beautiful woman and a kind soul.

I first met Susan aboard the R/V Acona, the University of Alaska research vessel, over four decades ago in 1977. Meeting her helped shape my scientific career. Upon graduation with my undergraduate biology and environmental sciences degree at Western Michigan University, I landed a wonderful job with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as a deckhand/scuba diver aboard the M/V Curlew, based in Juneau, Alaska. During my second summer aboard the Curlew, we were berthed in Sitka, Alaska. The skipper, Ted Estrada, took us up to the Pioneer Bar for a game of pool. Ted spotted a researcher from the University of Alaska’s Institute of Marine Science at the bar, and offered to introduce me since he knew I had been talking about graduate school. The researcher was Peter McRoy and he was with Mike Klug, a researcher from Michigan State University. We had a short chat and they invited me to come visit the research vessel which was going to be based at Crane Cove in Admiralty Island for two weeks.

The M/V Curlew. M/V Curlew. Image by Jim Clardy, Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The M/V Curlew. M/V Curlew. Image by Jim Clardy, Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A few days later I took them up on their offer with one of my U.S. Fish & Wildlife colleagues and set off in a Boston Whaler, skirting the kelp beds along the coast of Admiralty Island. Aboard the R/V Acona, I wandered around the boat talking with the students and technicians. Susan was at a lab bench and she talked with me about her research and about being a graduate student at the University of Alaska. She told me that she was from Pennsylvania, which I could identify with, being from Ohio. That conversation with Susan opened my eyes to the possibility of pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Alaska. Susan was finishing her Masters and heading off to Maryland to do her PhD at the end of year. It turned out that I started my Master’s program as Susan left, and I even inherited her desk with a wonderful view of the Alaska mountain range.

When I finished my Masters and moved to the University of Chicago and Marine Biological Laboratory for my PhD research, I connected with Susan again. She had finished her PhD studying Caulerpa, a tropical macroalga that is a giant single cell with multiple nuclei. She used stable isotopes to trace the uptake and translocation of nutrients within these bizarre plants. Susan worked with Tom Fisher at Horn Point Laboratory, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. She took a postdoc position at Stony Brook University with Bud Brinkhuis which was focused on mass culture of macroalgae. While Susan was at Stony Brook, she came to Woods Hole to work with me on a proposal. We co-authored a proposal to study the circadian rhythms Caulerpa vs. a seagrass Halophila. We received funding for the project which led to a project we conducted in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands using the underwater habitat Hydrolab. This when I met her husband Bruce Nyden.  and along with my aquanaut buddy Chuck Gross, we spent spent a week living in Hydrolab.

Bill and Susan at the 2009 CERF conference in Portland, OR.
Bill and Susan at the 2009 CERF conference in Portland, OR.

When Bob “JJ” Orth and I were pulling together a group of scientists to investigate seagrass trajectories at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, Susan was one of the first colleagues that we identified for our working group. Susan also provided two graduate students from the University of California, Davis, who were invaluable in our team – Randall Hughes and Suzanne Olyarnik. Our working group also included Tim Carruthers, Carlos Duarte, Ainsley Calladine, Jim Fourqurean, Ken Heck, Fred Short, Gary Kendrick and Michele Waycott. We held a series of working group meetings in Santa Barbara, and each time we broke up the meetings with field trips in the Santa Barbara region. We also had some great parties. Susan was always game for both the hard work and good times we had together.

Susan Williams and the Seagrass Trajectories Working Group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.
Susan Williams and the Seagrass Trajectories Working Group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

Susan Williams sharing a laugh with Bob Orth at NCEAS workshop.
Susan Williams sharing a laugh with Bob Orth at NCEAS workshop.

As part of my Science Visualization class that I am currently teaching, the graduate students take turns posting a blog each week, summarizing the lecture material and class discussions. Each week I have been posting a topical song that I have adapted from a popular song. For the in person session we held last Friday, I showed them photos of Susan and told them about our mission together in the underwater habitat, Hydrolab. I explained that we constantly played the sound track from the movie “The Big Chill,” often singing along and dancing in our cramped quarters. So I adapted the first song from the sound track, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye as follows:

I Heard It Through the Grapevine
27 Apr 2018
William C. Dennison

I know a man ain’t supposed to cry
But these tears I can’t hold inside
Losin’ Susan diminished my life you see
‘Cause she meant that much to me
She was the best when she was just herself
And I loved her even though we married someone else
Sadly, I heard it through the grapevine
No more longer would she be mine
Oh, I heard it through the grapevine
And I’m about to lose my mind.

The message to the class was to look around at your graduate student colleagues. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to have a forty-year friendship with someone as special as Susan.

About the author

Bill Dennison

Dr. Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Dr. Dennison’s primary mission within UMCES is to coordinate the Integration and Application Network.



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