Thus Spake Zuska

Profile: Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover

Guest post from Female Seaside Scientist, for the Diversity in Science Carnival!

Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover is a Professor of Marine Biology, Director of the Duke University Marine Lab, and Chair of the Marine Science and Conservation Division at the Nicholas School. Her research combines biogeochemistry, biodiversity, ecology of chemosynthetic deep-sea vent organisms, marine technology, and astrobiology.

Faculty page here; research page here; cv here.

More after the jump

Professor Van Dover had an early fascination with Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo character from the “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” book while growing up on the New Jersey shore chasing crabs. She went to Rutgers for a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science, and worked as a field technician for Duke University, living in a tent on an island in the Atlantic and canoeing into work everyday. Hydrothermal vents made their big debut in 1981, and excitedly, she asked if she could join the next ocean bottom expedition as a technician to sort out the collections brought up from the submersible ALVIN which was operated by the Navy seamen and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. As luck would have it, space was available aboard the mothership Lulu and off she went to the East Pacific Rise in 1982. The diversity of unknown life forms brought up to deck was incredible, and she also watched in amazement how the ALVIN crews operated to and from the ocean depths. Her fascination with the deep unknown lead to a master’s degree in Ecology from UCLA in 1985. Four years later, Dr. Van Dover obtained her doctorate from the joint Woods Hole/MIT program in Oceanography, studying benthic invertebrate communities of hydrothermal vents. But she wasn’t quite done with her training. The day after defending her dissertation, Dr. Van Dover began work with the ALVIN crew in developing maintenance manuals and safety documents, and getting certified to dive.

In 1990, Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover became the first and only woman pilot, the only PhD scientist, and the 49th person to earn the Naval dolphinfish pin to operate the ALVIN submarine. With her license to drive where she wanted to go (20,000 leagues under the sea!), she piloted 48 dives around the world. These trips led to the discovery of many new species and strange ecological relationships within the deep sea vent assemblages of mussels, shrimps, tube worms, and bacteria.

Often asked about her experiences during the Navy training, she talks about the hardships of being a woman explorer:

“During the training, some of them did things to undermine my confidence. On the training ship, anything that went wrong, it was my fault. It got to the point where I think they even gave me misinformation, though nothing that jeopardized safety. But they did tell me little things to make me look bad. Some said openly, “You shouldn’t be a pilot.” What kept me going was a feeling that I just couldn’t be the first woman who tried to be a pilot and who failed. Interestingly, there’s never been another woman Alvin pilot since.” (from NY Times)

Dr. Van Dover held various postdoctoral research associateships at Woods Hole, Duke University, and the University of Alaska before landing a professorship at the College of William and Mary in 1998. She received a Fulbright Scholarship in 2004, and headed to France for her sabbatical to study geobiology, and in her free time, mastered “enough” French to give two hour-long seminars that would have made Jacques Cousteau scream for more. Her groundbreaking marine research lead to technological advances in seafloor biogeosampling and oceanography, as well as further exploration on the little-studied hydrothermal vent ecosystems brimming with chemosynthetic life forms.

In 2006, Professor Van Dover returned to Duke University to become the first woman director of the Duke Marine Laboratory. She has published over 70 peer-reviewed articles in Science, Nature, PNAS, and other top journals, and authored “The Ecology of Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vents” (Princeton Press, 2000). Her observations and experience on the bottom of the sea are detailed in her book “Deep-Ocean Journeys: Discovering New Life at the Bottom of the Sea” (Helix Books, 1997).

If anyone’s in the quest of “Finding Nemo” you found her: Captain Professor Cindy Lee Van Dover, PhD.

Thank you Professor Van Dover for your sense of adventure to take marine research to new levels, deeper and higher.
Best wishes and continued success,
Female Seaside Scientist