From the president: Making seaside connections

This past July, as I was preparing to make my first visit to the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, Director Andy Read warned me that our island campus there is a little “saltier” than Durham.

A few weeks later, rounding the harbor like a buccaneer on Duke’s sixty-five-foot research catamaran, I understood what he meant. We weren’t on West Campus anymore.

My wife, Annette, and I had made the trip to the coast for the Marine Lab’s annual community open house, when Andy and his team invite local students and their families to explore the campus and learn about the wide-ranging research that goes on there.

Along with Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment Toddi Steelman and hundreds of enthusiastic visitors, we spent a day flying drones that are being used to explore the coasts of Antarctica. We examined sand dollars and sea urchins. We peered through vials of bioluminescent algae, which cast an eerie yellow glow.

But these were more than just cool exhibits. We know less about the oceans than any other environment on Earth, and the demonstrations taught us about the vital work the Marine Lab is doing to explore and protect threatened marine ecosystems.

It’s an effort that has been under way since Duke professor A.S. Peerse first visited what was then a sandy wayside in the 1930s and decided to set up a pioneering marine biology lab. Through the ensuing decades of hurricanes, technological advancement, tourism, and shifting salt winds, Duke students and faculty have been living and learning here in Beaufort, helping to conserve the coastline and waterways for their own families and neighbors.

Duke’s ties to Beaufort even run through generations. During my stay I was introduced to local leaders in education, government, and business by Beaufort Mayor Rhett Newton, an engineer and former U.S. Air Force pilot who is now pursuing drone research as a doctoral student at the Duke Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory. On my tour of Beaufort, I saw the granite monument in the town’s park honoring Rhett’s father, John G. Newton, who as Duke’s marine superintendent led the 1973 discovery of the sunken Civil War ironclad Monitor.

Today, Andy and his colleagues don’t have to read the scientific literature to see the impact of their work; they can go camping on the Outer Banks or sailing in Beaufort harbor. They could also ask some of the young students who visited, their eyes wide with wonder after learning about sea anemones and sharks. And now they can take particular pride in the resilience of their community: The Marine Lab was hammered by damaging winds and torrential rain from Hurricane Florence, but the campus was back to normal operations within weeks. In fact, Andy and his team quickly turned their attention to helping their neighbors recover.

Across North Carolina and around the world, Duke is working to build more of these direct connections to our community. We know we have a tremendous opportunity to meet our neighbors where they are, learn about what matters to them, and partner to build a better future for the places we are proud to call home. Based on what I saw in Beaufort, we are already well on our way.

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