Profile: Deborah Bronk, President and CEO


Like many oceanographers, Deborah Bronk started her academic career thinking she wanted to study whales and dolphins. The field owes a huge debt to these marine mascots, who have provided generations of aspiring scientists with an alluring path that leads to other more impactful but less charismatic sea life. In Bronk’s case, her oceanographic journey led her to study how nitrogen controls the growth of the microscopic organisms at the base of ocean food webs.

“You can’t have a whale if you don’t have phytoplankton, and you can’t have phytoplankton if you don’t have nitrogen,” Bronk said. “Whales and dolphins are amazing, but I now know they’re not nearly as fascinating as phytoplankton, which essentially control everything that’s going on in the ocean. At this point in my career, if you can see it, it’s probably not something I’d be interested to study.”

Her fascination with the microscopic organisms and chemicals of the ocean has guided her career. She now has more than two decades of experience as an oceanographer, professor, and administrator. During that time, she has conducted more than 50 research cruises and field studies in freshwater and marine environments from pole to pole. This February, she became president and CEO of Bigelow Laboratory.

Born in Wisconsin and raised in Nashville, Bronk had a landlocked childhood that failed to dampen her interest in the sea. Her early inspiration came from watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a documentary series that easily rivals whales and dolphins as a recruiting influence for oceanography during the last 50 years. Lacking access to beaches, she combed neighborhood yard sales for shells and curated a respectable collection — for a kid in Nashville. At age six, she knew we wanted to study the ocean. She still describes the first time she saw it at 13 years old as “amazing” with a big smile.

Before joining Bigelow Laboratory, Bronk was the Moses D. Nunnally Distinguished Professor of Marine Sciences and chair of the Department of Physical Sciences at the College of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences. She previously served as division director for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Science and as president of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography. These diverse experiences have shaped her perspective on the challenges facing our oceans, and ocean science.

At the National Science Foundation, she oversaw a $356 million dollar budget. While that is a lot of money by almost any standard, she came to realize it isn’t nearly enough for all the ocean science that needs to be done.

“If you look at all the areas where our country needs to invest in ocean research, even that much money is inadequate, and it is not increasing,” Bronk said. “I got very interested in how we could become more efficient and do more science with the available resources. How could we accelerate the pace of discovery and translation into things that help people and strengthen the country?”

This question stuck with her. It was clear the country needed to overhaul its approach to ocean science, but what would the right model look like? It would need to be nimble. It would need to be interdisciplinary. It would need to lack the traditional boundaries between labs in academic institutions, and its scientists would need to be given much greater intellectual freedom.

“When I visited Bigelow Laboratory for the first time in 2016, I immediately recognized that this institution shared my vision,” Bronk said. “Its collaborative and entrepreneurial approach is unique, and it is absolutely the way science needs to be done in this country.”

Running an independent and unconventional science laboratory is not without its challenges, however. Bigelow Laboratory currently gets about 70 percent of its funding from federal project grants. Bronk said the institution has a remarkable proposal success rate that speaks to the quality of its science, but long-term security, growth, and innovation will require diversification of funding strategies. She envisions an expansion of commercialization activities and analytical services, as well as increased philanthropic support for solution-focused science.

“As a country, we used to be bold and invest in a lot of crazy ideas, some of which worked and changed the world,” Bronk said. “I want to partner with philanthropic organizations and supporters that can help us push the limits of our creativity to try and develop science-based solutions to global problems.”