The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Jane Lubchenco Oral History Interviews

Two life history interviews conducted by Janice Dilg.

October 2014 - April 2015


Jane Lubchenco was born in 1947 in Denver, Colorado. The eldest of six girls and the daughter of two physicians, Lubchenco grew up loving science. Family activities focused on the outdoors and several years as a Girl Scout also instilled in Lubchenco an early interest in natural history and outdoor exploration.

Lubchenco attended a private Catholic all-girls preparatory school, St. Marys Academy, before enrolling at Colorado College to begin her undergraduate studies in 1965. A biology major, Lubchenco also took part in the college's Ford Independent Study Programs, which eschewed classes, grades and most examinations, favoring instead a strong focus on the virtues of independent academic exploration. Lubchenco also spent an important summer between her junior and senior year at an enrichment program hosted at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where she gained her first exposure to marine biology and to hands-on research.

Following the completion of her undergraduate work, Lubchenco enrolled at the University of Washington in 1969 to begin graduate studies. The UW marine biology program at that time was heavily influenced by the burgeoning field of experimental evolutionary ecology, a trend that made a major impact on Lubchenco. During her first year at Washington, Lubchenco also met a fellow marine biology graduate student, Bruce Menge, who would soon become her husband and a key research collaborator. After a year in Santa Barbara, Lubchenco completed her master's thesis (on sea stars) and the couple moved to the east coast, where Menge had accepted a position at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Once the couple had relocated, Lubchenco enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Harvard University's Biology Department, and with Menge began to study rocky marine seashore systems in New England. Lubchenco's research on the interactions between the snail Littorina and various types of seaweeds formed the nucleus of her doctoral dissertation. Not long after completing her doctorate in 1975, Lubchenco accepted a position as Assistant Professor at Harvard. During this time, she and Menge extended their research to compare their investigations of the rocky seashore systems of the east and west coasts to similar environments in tropical areas, specifically Panama.

Driven by a desire to return to the western United States, and seeking out circumstances that would allow them to nurture a family while remaining in tenure track positions, in 1977 Lubchenco and Menge relocated to Oregon State University, which accepted their proposal that they split a single full-time position in the university's Zoology Department. Doing so allowed the couple to raise two children while continuing to pursue teaching and research agendas that broadened over time.

Lubchenco and Menge have made significant contributions to the scientific understanding of marine ecosystems in Oregon and around the world. Their studies have differentiated the ecology of the Oregon coast from that of the Washington and California coasts, and have likewise improved the body of knowledge concerning interactions between Oregon's rocky shores and near shore oceans. Their work has stretched the boundaries of classic marine biology, coming to include genetics, biomechanics and physical oceanography, among other disciplines. The couple also founded the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), which has enabled the replication of scientific experiments across much larger expanses of coastline, thus promoting further understanding of the ways in which stretches of coastal ocean differ from one another.

Lubchenco's first exposure to the world of public policy came in the late 1980s when, as vice president of the Ecological Society of America, she headed an initiative to establish priorities for research funding within the field of ecology. This experience, coupled with an increasing concern over the depletion and degradation of the world's oceans, led Lubchenco to take an increasingly active role in steering public policy as it relates to marine ecosystems. Her interest in empowering other scientists to do the same led her to create the Leopold Leadership Program (1998) and the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (1999), both of which work to train scientists to become more effective leaders and communicators of science.

In 2009 Lubchenco was confirmed as the first woman and first marine biologist to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She remained in this post until 2013, during which time she oversaw a substantial increase in the agency's budget, reacted to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, and developed new policies related to coastline management, fisheries, and the next generation of weather satellites.

The recipient of twenty honorary doctorates, Lubchenco has also served a one year term as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has been awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, and is a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London.