Interview with Dr. Mary Scranton
Why are you interested in your particular area of study?
Marine chemistry is, perhaps the most interdisciplinary ocean science. What I mean by this is that you have to understand all aspects of the ocean (the biology, the geology, the physics and the chemistry) to understand the processes that influence water chemistry. Dissolved gases, especially methane, are interesting because they are a bit simpler than some other chemicals, and therefore, it is easier to pick apart the pieces and understand the factors that control methane in the water column. Previous data from off the East Coast, as well as from other areas, has hinted that methane, produced in the sediments of the continental margins by the processes that create reservoirs of oil and natural gas, is transported out of the margins. In some places, this "leakage" results in communities of vent-like organisms. In other cases, it is accompanied by other, possibly hazardous, compounds. Thus it is important to understand the extent to which, and the mechanisms by which, methane gets out into the water.
At what age did you decide you wanted to become a scientist? Was your decision related to any specific event in your life, and if so, what was that event?
I started out wanting to be a teacher. When I got older, I decided I wanted to be a college teacher, like my father. Then I thought I would be a geologist, like my grandfather. In school, I always enjoyed science more than other subjects and was good at it. I ended up in chemistry because I enjoyed that the most, and in marine chemistry because I couldn't imagine spending my life in a smelly lab. Now I get to combine the lab work and time in the field getting wet and dirty, and I love it!
Who were your role models? Why?
As I mentioned before, my father was a college professor (in Art History) and my grandfather was a geologist who explored the area that later became Mt. McKinley National Park in Alaska. So an academic and scientific life always seemed interesting. I didn't really have a particular role model in oceanography, other than the people I have worked with and around, partly because chemical oceanography is a relatively new science in comparison to, for example, marine biology.
Who encouraged you in your pursuit of science?
I have been lucky in that my teachers, beginning in elementary school - always encouraged me and pushed me. I had great math teachers in middle school and high school. I had an exciting physics teacher and an excellent chemistry teacher in high school who made the subjects really exciting. In college, my chemistry professors were all very supportive, as were some of my geology professors. But I am not sure I would have been easy to discourage, because I have always loved science!
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen in the deep sea?
As a chemist, I do not usually look at things like fish or exotic animals. To me, the waves and the storms at sea are invigorating. And a beautiful set of data that really makes sense is terrific!
How does your research affect people?
Methane is a greenhouse gas, and, as such, plays an important role in climate change. The oceans have not been considered very important in the global methane cycle, but large reservoirs of methane exist in the continental margins, and if they were to abruptly escape to the atmosphere, the effects would be enormous. Also, if ground water or other fluid flow is transporting methane out of the sediments into the water, it also may be bringing other compounds into the ocean. This might mean that the organisms in the water column and in sediments are more adapted than we might expect to certain chemicals we think of as pollutants.
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