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Profile of a NOAA Scientist: Dr. Alan Mearns

Dr. Alan Mearns and several colleagues in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

Dr. Alan Mearns (far right) and colleagues on a research expedition in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Dr. Mearns is a marine ecologist at NOAA's Hazardous Materials Response Division in the Office of Response and Restoration, a part of the National Ocean Service. (Photo credit: OR&R, NOAA)

“In my first year of college, I learned that…there is a big difference between having an “interest in nature” and “studying nature.”

 –Dr. Alan Mearns

Alan Mearns is a marine ecologist at NOAA's Hazardous Materials Response Division in the Office of Response and Restoration, a part of the National Ocean Service. His office is in Seattle, Washington. We talked to Dr. Mearns about how he came to be a scientist, his career as a scientist at NOAA, and how he came to study the effects of oil spills and other hazardous materials. Here is what he had to say:

Interviewer: Can you tell us how you became interested in a career in science? Can you trace your interest in science back to a childhood experience, a favorite teacher or a favorite course?

Alan Mearns: I became interested in nature early in my childhood. I grew up in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s. When I was 10, we moved out into the "country," where I played among the orange groves with my buddies. There were snakes and lizards everywhere. We noticed that every fence lizard or skink we caught had lost its tail, and I wondered why. I didn’t know it then, but I had posed my first scientific question! I kept some horned lizards (called "horny toads") in a box in the garage to see if there was any truth in the story that they spit blood out of their eyes. I am afraid to say what I did to try to get them to squirt blood, but they never did.

A pet shop opened nearby, and I began spending time there. I bought several aquaria and started raising tropical fish in the garage. My high school buddy, who also raised tropical fish, told me about the tropical fish he heard about that lived in the low desert. With our brand new driver’s licenses and his 1936 Packard Coupe, we made our first big “fishing” expedition. In the desert, near Palm Springs, we used a seine and dip nets to catch sailfin mollies, swordtails and platies, which we sold to fish stores in Long Beach.

During that trip, a fish not found in pet stores—the desert pupfish (Cyprinodon macularius)—piqued my interest. I quickly forgot about the non-native tropical fish I had been so fascinated with since childhood, and tried to learn everything I could about this strange “tropical” fish that had lived in desert springs for thousands of years. I even wrote an article for the Garden Grove Aquarium Society’s magazine called "Fish in the Desert?"

Despite all my wonderful childhood experiences with living things, I had not yet learned that there was a big difference between having an interest in nature, and studying nature. I found out that science is more than enjoying nature. It involves using logical thinking and experimental methods to ask and answer questions about the world around us. Until I learned this, I was using only part of the scientific method: I asked questions about tailless lizards, blood-squirting horny toads and desert pupfish, but I had not rigorously answered my questions. During my college and graduate school years, I was exposed to “scientific thinking”—in other words, thinking through questions and problems using logic and experimental design. It was not until then that I truly used the scientific method to ask and answer questions about nature.


Interviewer: Tell us about your educational background, and your first job in your field.

Alan Mearns: I was a smart kid, so my folks wanted me to be a doctor or dentist. I began college as a pre-dental major at California State College in Long Beach. It took only two semesters of zoology classes and a class field trip to the Sea of Cortez, in Mexico, to make me realize that I was destined to be a field biologist. During the next three years, I took all the "-ology" classes that my college offered—invertebrate zoology, entomology, botany, and so on. My professors took us on many exciting field trips and gave me my fill of painful lab practical exams—but I am grateful to them for all of it.

After I graduated from college, I decided to go to graduate school. I earned a master's degree at Long Beach, and then a doctorate (PhD) in fisheries at the University of Washington. I had the good fortune of having some wonderful and highly motivated professors, and others, guiding my academic and early professional development.

Dr. Alan Mearns collecting data on a boulder-strewn shoreline in Prince William Sound

Dr. Alan Mearns collecting data on a boulder-strewn shoreline in Prince William Sound (Photo credit: OR&R, NOAA)

After earning my PhD, my first job was as a biologist with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project ( in Los Angeles. I was hired to investigate why fish living around sewage outfalls appeared to have skin tumors. The famous filmmaker and naturalist Jacques Cousteau, and other environmental advocates, had claimed that sewage was causing the tumors. They demanded that the California State Legislature pass laws requiring a higher level of sewage treatment. Their claims seemed “fishy” to me; I suspected the tumors might have another cause. My scientific training caused me to ask questions that challenged the assumptions made by Cousteau and the others.

I discovered that the only places where people looked for the tumor-bearing fish were around the ocean sewage discharges. No one had sampled away from the discharge area. My team and I quickly mounted a survey of remote areas to test the hypothesis that the tumors were unique to fish around the sewage discharges. We discovered that the same fish species away from the discharges also had skin tumors, and that tumors were just as common in these fish as those around the sewage discharges. Further, it had just been discovered that the tumors in fish in the Northwest were caused by a marine parasite. The sewage discharges were not the problem, as people had assumed; the tumors were caused by a parasite! Jacques Cousteau was a wonderful naturalist, adventurer and politician, and brought much-needed attention to the oceans, but he was not a scientist.

Interviewer: Tell us about your career at NOAA. What is your job title? What are your duties?

Alan Mearns: After 10 years at the Water Research Project, and leading the Biology Division there, I came to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Officially, my job title is “ecologist.” My first assignment at NOAA was to help with a program investigating pollution in Puget Sound and the New York Bight. We were challenged with rigorously testing hypotheses about some common popular assumptions about pollution. The Puget Sound research evolved into a nationwide evaluation of marine pollution. Several years later, I led a national team of scientists in an effort called "Historical Trends Assessment." We collected pollutant data from dozens of laboratories all around the U.S. coastline and wrote several reports showing that marine pollution was increasing during the 1950s and 1960s, and then started to decline in the 1970s. 

Then, on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Every able-bodied scientist at NOAA in Seattle was called upon to help the NOAA HazMat team, including myself. That summer, I joined the effort and helped design and undertake field surveys to determine the extent and magnitude of effects of the oil on marine life. The next year (1990), I officially joined the HazMat team and was given responsibility for conducting a long-term monitoring survey to document the recovery of injured shoreline marine life. 

Currently, I work at NOAA's Hazardous Materials Response Division in Seattle, Washington. During my career at NOAA, I have been assigned as leader of the HazMat Biological Assessment Team and, more recently, as senior staff scientist. My duties include supporting national coordinators and the U.S. Coast Guard during spills of oil and other materials, conducting research on the best ways to clean up oil spills, representing my office at national and international conferences, recommending policy to my managers, and providing training to the Coast Guard and state agencies, industries, and others involved in spill response.


Dr. Mearns digs for residual oil on a cobbled beach in Prince William Sound.

Dr. Mearns digs for residual oil on a cobbled beach in Prince William Sound. (Photo credit: OR&R, NOAA)

Interviewer: What advice would you give to a high school student who would like to pursue a career similar to yours—in the marine sciences such as marine biology, marine ecology, marine chemistry, or marine environmental policy?

Alan Mearns: I advise taking as much science as you can in high school, especially earth science, biology, chemistry, physics and math. In addition, read everything you can get your hands on, and practice writing whenever possible.

It is critical for you to surround yourself with smart people, and realize that your education never stops. I am still learning to this day!

Every science course I took in college has helped me in my career at NOAA, but I think some of the non-science courses were the most valuable to my future as a scientist. What I learned in courses in philosophy, speech, statistics and writing has been helpful on a daily basis. Of all the courses I took, writing and speech have been among the most useful.

In addition, practical experience outside the federal government was critical in my later work at NOAA. I learned how others approached problems and I brought those skills with me to NOAA. If possible, I recommend that students "try it out" as a volunteer or intern with several types of organizations—in government, nongovernmental organizations, environmental organizations, corporations or schools. Many science-based and policy-based organizations, including NOAA, offer internship opportunities for students. 

Interviewer: What are some alternative career options for young people with backgrounds in the marine sciences?

Alan Mearns: There is a great need for well-trained marine environmental scientists in industry, consulting firms, and nongovernmental environmental organizations, as well as at all levels of government. I think there is a critical need for well-trained marine scientists to work for nongovernmental environmental advocacy organizations. These organizations are often in the public limelight and need to make sure that their facts are correct and accurate—in other words, they need to back up their advocacy with science.


A Marine Scientist’s Publications

One of the jobs of scientists is to publish their work in scientific journals. Written papers and reports represent the scientists’ “portfolio,” the ultimate summary of their work. By submitting papers to journals, scientists subject their work to “peer review,” which is a careful review by other scientists selected by the journal’s editors. This process insures that mistakes are minimized, that the work represents good science, and that the results and conclusions are understandable. Information that is not subject to peer review, such as most Web sites, should be considered with caution.

Below is a select list of the 150 papers and technical reports that Dr. Mearns’ has published. They demonstrate the great variety of subjects that marine scientists may work on during their careers. All but the 1993 article in Sea Technology were peer-reviewed.

Mearns, A.J., M. Stekoll, K. Hall, C.J. Beegle-Krause, M. Watson and M. Atkinson. 2003. Biological and Ecological Effects of Wastewater Discharges from Cruise Ships in Alaska. Pages 737-747 In Oceans 2003 MTS/IEEE Conference Proceedings, September 22-26, San Diego, CA., Marine Technology Society, Columbia, MD.

Mearns, A.J., G. Watabayashi and J. Lankford. 2001.  Dispersing Oil Nearshore in the California Current Region. CalCOFI Reports 42:97-109.

Mearns, A.J., M.J. Allen and M.D. Moore. 2000.  The Southern California Coastal Water Research Project - 30 Years of Environmental Research in the Southern California Bight.  1999-2000 Annual Report, Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, Westminster, CA.

Mearns, A.J., B. Benggio and T.D. Waite. 1999.  Ballast water treatment during emergency response: Case of the M/T Igloo Moon. Pages 1463 - 1468 In Proceedings, Oceans '99 MTS/IEEE Conference,  Seattle, Washington, October, 1999. Marine Technology Society, Washington, D.C.

Mearns, A.J. 1997. Cleaning oiled shores: putting bioremediation to the test. Spill Science and Technology Bulletin 4(4):209-217.

Kendall, A.W. and A.J. Mearns. 1996. Egg and larval development in relation to systematics of Novumbra hubbsi, the Olympic Mudminnow. Copeia 1996(3): 684-695.

Mearns, A.J. 1996. Exxon Valdez Shoreline Treatment and Operations: Implications for Response, Assessment, Monitoring and Research. Pages 309-328 In S.D. Rice, R.B. Spies, D.A. Wolfe and B.A. Wright (editors). Proceedings of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Symposium. American Fisheries Society Symposium 18. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, MD. 931 pp.

Mearns, A.J. October 1993. "Appropriate" Technologies for Marine Pollution Control: Controversy in Fitting the Solution to the Problem—Shoreline Cleaning, Bioremediation, Wastewater treatment, Monitoring and Assessment. Sea Technology, pp. 31-37.

Mearns, A.J. 1988. The "odd fish": unusual occurrences of marine life as indicators of changing ocean conditions. Chapter 7. Pages 137-176 In D.F. Soule and G.S. Kleppel (editors), Marine organisms as indicators. Springer-Verlag, New York.

Mearns, A.J., R.C. Swartz, J.M. Cummins, P.A. Dinnel, P. Plesha and P.M. Chapman. 1986.  Inter-laboratory comparison of a sediment toxicity test using the marine amphipod, Rhepoxynius abronius. Marine Environmental Research 19:13-37.

Mearns, A.J. and T. P. O'Connor. 1984. Biological effects versus pollutant inputs: the scale of things. Pages 693-722 In H.H. White (ed). Concepts in Marine Pollution Measurements. Maryland Sea Grant Publication UM-SG-TS-84-03, University of Maryland, College Park, MD. 743 pp.

Mearns, A.J. 1981. Effects of municipal discharges on open coastal ecosystems. Pages 25-66 In R.A. Geyer (editor). Marine Environmental Pollution 2. Dumping and Mining. Elsevier Scientific Publishing Co., New York. 574 pp.

Mearns, A.J., D.R. Young, R.J. Olson and H.A. Schafer. 1981. Trophic structure and the cesium-potassium ratio in pelagic ecosystems. CalCOFI Reports 22:99-110.

Mearns, A.J. and M.J. Sherwood. 1977. Distribution of neoplasms and other diseases of marine fishes relative to the discharge of wastewater. Annuals of the  New York Academy of Science 128:210-224.