The Susan Williams Session at 2019 CERF: I Heard it Through the Grapevine

Bill Dennison ·
2 March 2020

Susan Williams

For the 2019 Coastal & Estuarine Research Federation conference in Mobile, AL, Bob "JJ" Orth and Ken Heck organized a special session "Seagrasses: A tribute to Susan Williams". This special session went for 2.5 days with 56 oral papers and innumerable posters as well. I was asked to kick off the session with a personal reflection on what Susan meant to me. My talk was titled "My four decade friendship with Susan Williams: I heard it through the grapevine".

As I detailed in previous blogs, I first met Susan in 1977 when she was a graduate student at the University of Alaska and I was a deck hand/SCUBA diver with the US Fish & Wildlife Service. I shared some photos of Susan throughout her life that I had collected from her husband Bruce Nyden, her sister Holly Williams, and her colleagues Deedee Shideler and Bob Orth. I went on to explain the significance of Susan's pioneering PhD research using stable isotopes to determine that the green alga Caulerpa absorbed and translocated nitrogen from sediments into the fronds. Susan and I collaborated as co-principal investigators on an underwater habitat mission in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. We studied the circadian rhythms of Caulerpa vs. a seagrass Halophila that lived side-by-side but had drastically different evolutionary histories. The publication that resulted from that research is not highly cited, but remains one of the research efforts that I enjoyed the most.

Bill Dennison and Susan Williams in 1985.

I briefly touched on the results of a wonderful collaboration with Susan through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). Our Seagrass Trajectories Working group produced a series of highly cited publications which Carlos Duarte detailed in his talk (incidentally, Carlos flew in from Saudi Arabia for a single day to attend this session). All but two of our NCEAS group made it to this session, coming from Australia, New Hampshire, Maryland, Virginia, Florida, California, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Saudi Arabia, which is a testament to the pull that Susan still exerts on all of us.

In retrospect, these two scientific efforts were personal highlights for me over the course of my career, and Susan's involvement was an important factor. In fact, all of my interactions with Susan over the four decades that we maintained our friendship were positive.

At the UC Davis and Bodega Marine Laboratory events commemorating Susan's career, they displayed some nice poster-sized photos of Susan. I asked Suzanne Olyarnik to send them to Mobile to use at the CERF conference. Suzanne agreed, but when it came time to mail them, she was unable to get to the lab due to California bush fires. As a result, I had Deedee Shideler send along high resolution electronic images and I found a print shop in downtown Mobile. I told them the story and they printed off two large photos, backed with foam board and when I went to pay, they said there was no charge. I took this generous Southern hospitality to be Susan's karma. We gathered our NCEAS group together for a nice group photo holding Susan's image.

I lost my composure twice during the CERF meeting. The first was when I looked out at the audience during my talk and saw Leila Hamden smile and nod encouragingly. Leila was one of the conference organizers and at the opening plenary dedicated the conference to Susan and talked about how Susan would sit in the front of the audience, smile and nod encouragingly, emitting good vibes. When I saw Leila doing this, I transposed Susan's face and felt as though she was in attendance. And then at the closing plenary of the conference I went to congratulate Katie Dubois, Susan's most recent graduate student, for winning the best student presentation award. I knew that Susan would have been so proud of Katie, which caused me to choke up.

Members of the Seagrass Trajectories Working Group, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis holding a photo of Susan Williams at the Coasts and Estuaries Research Federation meeting in Nov. 2019. Left to right: Fred Short, Bob Orth, Bill Dennison

To complete my talk, I adapted the song "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" which we had often danced to in the Hydrolab in 1984. The lyrics are as follows:

I Heard it Through the Grapevine
5 Nov 2019
William C. Dennison

I bet you're wonderin' how I knew 'bout Susan which made me blue
With many other folks who knew before,
Between both coasts and abroad
It took me by surprise I must say
Don't you know I heard it through the grapevine
No more longer would she be mine
Oh, I heard it through the grapevine
And I'm just about to lose my mind

Susan, Susan yeah
I heard it through the grapevine
No more longer would you be mine baby

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 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

Susan, Susan yeah
I heard it through the grapevine
No longer would she be mine baby

People talked about Susan you see
Those stories were great to hear
But I can't help but be confused
If it's true please tell me dear
Do you plan to let me go
For now I miss her even more than before
Don' t you know that I heard it through the grapevine
No more longer would she be mine
Oh, I heard it through the grapevine
And I'm just about to lose my mind

Susan, Susan yeah
I heard it through the grapevine
No more longer would you be mine, baby . . .

Bill Dennison and Susan Williams 2017

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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