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Volume 52, Number 35   May 23, 2005         

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People on Campus

William Cochlan: A life on the sea
Photo of William Cochlan
Born and raised on the coast of British Columbia and now a senior research scientist at SFSU's Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies (RTC), it is no wonder that William Cochlan spends a good portion of his time -- not to mention his mind -- on the Pacific Ocean.

Cochlan, a biological oceanographer and marine microbial ecologist, focuses his research on the factors that control phytoplankton and bacterial growth, nutrition and distribution in the ocean. Current research includes two major three-year projects funded through grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a large collaborative, five-year "Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms" grant co-funded by the NSF and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a three-year U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant.

The NSF and DOE projects focus on the microbial response of the oceanic system when minute amounts of iron are added to iron-deficient waters. Cochlan was part of an international team that conducted the highly successful, large scale iron-enrichment experiments in Antarctica's Southern Ocean, which resulted in a cover story in the prestigious journal Science last year. The team's research demonstrated the pivotal role that iron plays in controlling carbon and nitrogen uptake by marine phytoplankton. This was a very significant finding since phytoplankton has the ability to chemically regulate atmospheric carbon dioxide -- a major greenhouse gas responsible for climatic change.

Cochlan is collaborating with scientists in Canada (Charles Trick, University of Western Ontario), the United States (Mark Wells, University of Maine) and Japan (among them Drs. Tsuda and Takeda, University of Tokyo) to understand the long-term response of the North Pacific Oceanic ecosystem to this experiment.

When he's not flying back and forth across the ocean to meet with foreign collaborators or collecting and analyzing samples at sea for as much as seven weeks at a time, Cochlan is busy at RTC. Supervising undergraduate and graduate students in their own research projects as well as research volunteers and conferring with his research associates is a full-time job in itself.

"There's no way I could conduct all the research I do all by myself," Cochlan says. "SFSU students are invaluable." He adds that his research associates, Julian Herndon and Nicolas Ladizinski, both hold master's degrees, are critical to ensuring that his research collaborations with other universities and government agencies are as collegial and scientifically effective as possible. "They help create an atmosphere of scientific inquiry and comradeship that makes being away from home and family for weeks at a time not a hardship at all."

"Bill was my academic and research adviser when I was a student," Herndon said. "The students in his lab and classes have a unique opportunity to interact with a scientist who cares for students as much as he cares about his research."

Cochlan and his wife, Bev, a second grade teacher in the Mill Valley School District, live in Tiburon. The couple run, cycle and swim regularly and, like most Marin County residents, enjoy hiking the local watershed and state and federal parklands. Both are also voracious readers and active travelers.

An armchair historian, Cochlan recently read "Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda" by Lt. General Romeo Dallaire and Brent Beardsley, and "Flags of our Fathers: Heroes of Iwo Jima" by James Bradley and Ron Powers.

When asked what a busman's holiday would be for him, the oceanographer replies, "I never vacation on the sea. You'll never find me on one of those cruise ships." But vacations on Kauai are frequent. Cochlan has also extended research visits to Japan, China and Europe to vacations with his wife. Occasionally his work will take him back home to Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., where Cochlan was once a Canadian Navy reservist and later a limnologist for the Canadian government. Other recent or future travel includes Vladivostok, Paris and Honolulu.

Cochlan welcomes every opportunity to go back to coastal Antarctica. So far his research has taken him on six cruises to the Ross Sea and Palmer Pennisula. "I like the extreme nature of the polar systems," he says. "The scenery is great and there's a massive number of whales to observe." This is not to say that Cochlan would not return to research in the tropics on the Equatorial Pacific.

Situated on San Francisco Bay, the Romberg Tiburon Center is just as scenic and stimulating a place as any location in Cochlan's field work. "It's an environment where excellence is encouraged both in marine science research and teaching," he says. "I really don't think you can separate one from the other."

-- Denize Springer

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Last modified May 23, 2005, by the Office of Public Affairs & Publications