Science Notebook: Interview with Ted DeWitt
EPA Science Notebook Coordinator Dr. Dale Haroski recently interviewed Dr. Ted DeWitt a research ecologist with EPA's Pacific Coast Ecology Branch in Newport, Oregon. Follow Ted's career path to see what it takes to be an EPA scientist and how to have some fun too in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
DH: What is your science and educational background?
TD: Well, I got my bachelor's of arts at New College of Florida, which is in Sarasota, Florida. Then I went to Stony Brook College on Long Island where I got my Ph.D. in ecology and evolution and was focusing on marine ecology and on the behavior of amphipods. Then I came to the west coast and did my post-doc through Oregon State University working with the EPA lab here on sediment contamination issues. After that I was a post-doc with the Smithsonian Institution out in Maryland on the Chesapeake working on predator prey interactions in the estuary. Then I came back out here and worked as a research faculty at Oregon State University, resuming my work with the EPA sediment contamination group here developing sediment toxicity tests. After that I took a job at Battelle up in Washington State at their marine laboratory on the Olympic Peninsula where I continued to do sediment contamination toxicity research, primarily for EPA, as they were my client developing chronic sediment toxicity tests for marine and estuarine sediments. Then in '97 I took a position back here in Newport as an EPA scientist.
DH: So after all of those experiences why do you think you ultimately ended up at EPA?
TD: Well, when I came out of grad school I felt I needed to work on research that affected people more directly than what I had been doing, so the opportunity to come out and do my post-doc with Oregon State University and EPA was very appealing. Once I got here I found Newport and the EPA community here to be really warm and inviting, and I felt really at home for the first time in many years. So I decided this is where I really wanted to stay. Even though I left twice for other work opportunities, it was the friendships and the natural beauty of Newport and the Oregon coast that drew us, my wife and I, back.
DH: What do you see as one of the most important things that you have worked on at EPA?
TD: Prior to switching back to ecosystem ecology, I would say the development of sediment toxicity tests as I was heavily involved with three of the toxicity tests that are now standard methods across the country. I feel that those were very valuable. Also, the work that I have been doing here on the ecology of the shrimp has been important because there wasn't really much known about their role in estuarine ecosystems of the Pacific coast, but they are incredibly abundant in many estuaries and had been virtually taken for granted. We, I think, have made a strong case that they play a critical role in nitrogen and carbon cycling and an important role in the food webs. Consequently, I think that their ecological importance and value, at least within the region, has become better recognized.
DH: So a non-work question; what do you do for fun?
TD: Oh, boy let's see. For exercise I like playing ultimate frisbee, scuba diving (when I can get to warmer water, which it isn't often enough!), photography, and travelling I also like woodworking, furniture making and home repair, mainly anything that involves building things. I enjoy gardening. I grow orchids, carnivorous plants and veggies. We have a pretty good sized yard that always needs tending. I have a nine year old daughter and I also spend a lot of time playing with her.
DH: If you could trade places with any other scientist for a week, famous or not famous, real or fictional, living or dead; who would it be?
TD: Well, I probably would pick Jacques Cousteau. He inspired my interest in marine biology as a kid and I always wanted to go on those adventures to explore new reefs, far away places.
DH: I suspect many of us owe our careers to Jacques! What profession other than your own would you choose and why?
TD: Hmmm profession, well if I didn't have to make a living I would probably want to be an artist; work doing sculpture and digital photography and manipulation of digital imagery. I play around with that now, but not nearly as much as I would like to. Perhaps I can do more once I retire.
DH: What profession would you not like to do?
TD: I think I would go nuts if I had to work in accounting and book keeping. I get bored with that pretty quickly.
DH: Any advice for students considering a career in science?
TD: The advice I usually give to students is to not get too locked into your vision of the future. Keep you future possibilities open because a lot of twists and turns will come on the path ahead and you should be ready to roll with them. When advising biologists on picking their thesis topics I tell them to pick an organism that has an applied aspect even if they just want to study the natural history of it, so that their work can appeal to a wider range of potential employers by demonstrating.
DH: What is the last book that you read, or what are you reading now?
TD: At home I tend to read just for pleasure, mostly science fiction, spy novels and fantasy-lit. My two favorite recent books are The Historian and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
DH: Ok, just a few more quick questions: Lego or Lincoln logs?
DH: PC or mac?
DH: Chocolate or Vanilla?
DH: Yup, I'm starting to become convinced that there is definitely a chocolate thing going on with scientists which sort of makes you feel bad for vanilla after awhile! Thanks for your time today Ted!
TD: No problem!