“The oceans are in trouble, climate is changing rapidly, and the world is in need of solutions,” the new president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Peter B. de Menocal, told some 500 attendees at a virtual town hall meeting in early October.
“I think we can use this moment to lead ocean science and engineering in the service of a global good; we are the A-team to bring that science to bear,” he told the WHOI community as he hit the ground running after officially beginning his tenure as the 11th president and director of the institution on October 1.
After an in-depth search process, Dr. de Menocal was unanimously chosen from a pool of 50 candidates from diverse backgrounds to be WHOI’s new president and director.
Dr. de Menocal was not looking for a job, he said at the town hall meeting.
He liked the one he had at Columbia University, where he was Thomas Alva Edison/Con Edison Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and founding director of Columbia’s Center for Climate and Life—a team of more than 120 scientists and other experts mobilizing use-inspired science to understand how climate impacts essential aspects of human life.
When the opportunity to come to WHOI arose, however, it called Dr. de Menocal, a marine geologist and paleoceanographer who studies deep-sea sediments as archives of past climate change.
“I was drawn to WHOI because I think our generation has an obligation to set our planet on a better path,” Dr. de Menocal, who is approaching his 61st birthday, told the town hall audience. “My decision to leave the security of tenure was really a personal commitment to make a difference in my lifetime; to have a more significant impact and a bigger platform...[working with] some of the best scientists and engineers one could hope for on the planet. We are the trusted and respected voice for the oceans. I am amazed to find myself here. It’s an honor.”
Dr. de Menocal said he is at WHOI “for the long haul,” and he invited the community to consider a “larger vision” on how to advance ocean science for the global good.
To shape this vision, Dr. de Menocal said he will hold listening sessions with each department, research group, staff group, technology group, marine operations group and, if possible, with every person on campus to hear their ideas.
“I don’t pretend to have all the answers or even all the questions, but I do bring experience; I do bring commitment. I’m all in,” he told the town hall audience. “I hope we can look back at this moment and see that we collectively stood up and did all we could to ensure sustainable oceans and a healthy planet for future generations. We have a very narrow window to make a difference, and that window is closing. This is our time.”
Dr. de Menocal has always had a connection to the ocean. As a child, he came to Woods Hole from his home in Rye, New York, to visit his grandparents who retired on Nantucket in 1945, riding the old ferry Nobska to the island.
It was a visit to Woods Hole as a teenager, however, that set the course for his life’s work.
As Dr. de Menocal told the story for an article in WHOI’s October edition of Oceanus Magazine, he was a 19-year-old studio art and math major at Lawrence University when he hitchhiked to visit a friend on Cape Cod. His last ride dropped him off at WHOI’s Quissett campus, where he walked into the Clark Building.
A large hand grabbed his shoulder, and a booming voice, which belonged not to a security officer but to marine geologist Charles Hollister, said, “Can I help you, son?”
Dr. Hollister pulled the young Peter deMenocal into his office, where the teenager spent the next several hours listening to the scientist’s tales of going to sea, traveling the world, building scientific instruments and conducting oceanographic research.
“I was riveted,” Dr. de Menocal said. “When I walked out of Clark that day, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
The experience that most prepared Dr. de Menocal to take on a leadership role at WHOI, he said in the Oceanus article, was founding and directing Columbia’s Center for Climate and Life, where, faced with urgent need for climate solutions, he developed a new funding model that incentivized scientists to pursue high-risk, high-value research to accelerate innovation.
This idea of the funding model, Dr. deMenocal told the town meeting audience, was to establish a philanthropically supported organization that would support scientists at a high level of funding.
“It really worked,” he said. The first $4 million invested in scientists brought back $32 million in new external grants and foundational awards: a seven-fold return on investment.
Dr. de Menocal said that having been a grant-supported, soft-money scientist himself for a number of years, he really understands the difficulties of soft funding in an increasingly difficult federal funding environment.
“We often don’t have time to think about what we could be doing to save the world because we’re worried about next month’s funding,” he said.
“The bottom line is that I completely understand the culture and community I’m coming into, and I’m going to do my very best,” he told his town hall audience.
On Dr. de Menocal’s “urgent list” is to hire a chief financial officer who will work closely with him to bring in greater revenue, create more diverse funding portfolios and “engage transformative philanthropy to support some of the big ideas we have,” he said.
He has created a President’s Fund for Innovation, which already has significant giving in it.
Also on Dr. de Menocal’s urgent list is to improve diversity and culture on campus. Figuring out how to embrace a more diverse workforce right now is “absolutely a focus area,” he said.
During his tenure as Dean of Science for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University, Dr. de Menocal doubled faculty hiring rates for women and underrepresented minorities in the natural sciences.
In his first two months at WHOI, he has established diversity, equity and inclusion committees in each department and finalized a job description for a chief diversity officer who will report directly to him.
Dr. de Menocal wants to develop protocols and solutions to increase the hiring of highly qualified diverse candidates and underrepresented minorities in the ocean sciences, he said in a phone interview.
“We will identify exceptional candidates from around the world,” he said. “These people exist, and we will explore ways to recruit them. We’re willing to hire as soon as possible.”
Of his push for a more diverse scientific community at WHOI, he said at the town meeting, “We need to look like the societies that we serve. The best way is to have open discussions about it and find ways that are authentic to us. More diverse communities make better decisions.
Addressing the challenges facing humanity in the coming decade is going to take “a discovery approach that is unlike anything we’ve ever done before. And that can only happen at a place like WHOI,” Dr. de Menocal said in the Oceanus interview. “Our path to a sustainable future on this increasingly crowded planet begins with a call for a healthy, stable, protected ocean.”
“The opportunities ahead are vast, urgent and right at our doorstep,” he told the town hall audience.
“This is a time when hope can be matched by real action,” Dr. de Menocal said by phone. “I am completely certain that we can do this.”
Dr. de Menocal and his wife and two daughters are living in WHOI’s Meteor House in Woods Hole village. They are the first family to live there in two decades.
Before moving to Woods Hole, he had lived on the Upper West Side of New York City for 33 years.
His wife, who is from Osaka, Japan, has always lived in cities. His daughters have always gone to city schools. He was a bit concerned about what kind of transition they all might have.
“To my great surprise and joy, everyone loves it here,” Dr. de Menocal said. “Our kids are at Falmouth Academy and have already made friends and are loving their time there. My wife has also made new friends. We have people knocking on our door at home, coming to say hello and offer gifts or food, and introducing their kids to ours. I can’t say I could have anticipated this; it has been welcoming beyond my imagination.”