College of LAS « Illinois

Margaret Leinen

Big Ideas

Margaret Leinen

Scientific expeditions, both large and small, have had a way of becoming defining moments in the life of Margaret Leinen.

A muddy field trip along the Sangamon River during her undergraduate years at Illinois first put her on the path of studying geology. And her coordination of far-reaching scientific expeditions brought out her unique ability to manage large groups of scientists, earning her a 2010 LAS Alumni Achievement Award.

During the late 1980s and into the ’90s, Leinen led a number of expeditions that carried up to 70 top scientists and considerable equipment to the equatorial Pacific to probe the depths of the sea, studying the impact of oceans on the climate and environment as a whole. The Joint Global Ocean Flux Study is considered the most ambitious ocean biogeochemical research program ever mounted.

These expeditions also gave Leinen a deep appreciation for Big Science—the science of large, multi-investigator groups.

“Many of the most revolutionary ideas in science came from individuals working alone in their labs,” she says. “But to understand what controls the productivity of the whole ocean, you need a campaign. You need lots of people working together.”

The ocean and its role in climate have been Leinen’s passion throughout her career as she moved through the roles of professor, dean, vice provost, assistant director for the National Science Foundation, and founder of two environmental organizations. But growing up in Joliet, Ill., far from any source of salt water, Leinen says that initially she had no idea her interests would move in the direction of the sea.

Leinen came to the University of Illinois in the 1960s, and she started out in chemistry at a time when there weren’t many women in the field. In fact, she tells how her first class had several hundred students, but only five were females. Male students were given assigned seats, but the professor moved the women around so the guys could take turns sitting next to a female.

Things have certainly changed since those days, and so has Leinen.

At Illinois, Leinen’s interests changed to geology, thanks to that pivotal field trip. The trip was a small group—not like the large expeditions she would later coordinate—but the smaller size enabled students to bond with professors, influencing her choice of geology.

“The geology professors slogged through the same mud that we were slogging through, wet and dirty and passing around a thermos of coffee,” she recalls. “It was a very different college experience.”

Leinen received her bachelor’s degree in geology from Illinois in 1969, but she was still not drawn to the ocean until she went to Oregon State University, where she did her master’s work on sediments deposited in the ocean. Next, she crossed the continent to the University of Rhode Island, where she was a PhD student, a professor, and eventually a dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography.

By this time, her sights were firmly set on ocean biogeochemistry, which has a major impact on so much of the planet’s environment.

In Rhode Island, Leinen did work on the history of biological productivity in the oceans, and on chemical reactions taking place as seawater circulates through rocks in underwater mountain ranges—the mid-ocean ridges where tectonic plates meet. She discovered that these hydrothermal events dramatically affect the basic chemistry of the sea, including the ocean’s ability to take up calcium.

During her years at Rhode Island, she also served on the scientific steering committee for the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study, for which she helped to organize the expeditions to the equatorial Pacific. This study shaped our current understanding of how the ocean takes in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transports it to deep waters and sediments on the sea floor. There, it is stored, or sequestered.

“Most carbon is dissolved as bicarbonate,” she says. “The ocean is like a big Alka-Seltzer.”

In 2000, Leinen carried her talent for organizing to the National Science Foundation (NSF), where she led the Geosciences Directorate and managed a $700 million annual budget. At the NSF, she says she was most proud of leading new observing capabilities like the Ocean Observatory Initiative, highlighting education and diversity programs, and coordinating environmental research and education across all areas of the agency.

“The Ocean Observatory Initiative provides a long-term presence in the deep ocean, to observe what’s going on,” she says. It will lead to the placement of scientific instruments on the sea floor and attached to moorings so scientists can take continuous measurements rather than rely on snapshots of oceanic conditions.

At the NSF, she was also in charge of other major infrastructure improvements, such as a new oceanographic research vessel now being built, the renovation of an ocean drilling vessel, and the construction of an “incoherent scatter radar array” to study the ionosphere when the sun releases mass quantities of material into space.

Leinen remained with the NSF until 2007, when she and her son created Climos, a company that supports research on ocean fertilization—the use of iron to stimulate biological productivity in the oceans. By increasing biological productivity, you increase carbon sequestration by the ocean. Currently, she says, the oceans take up a little more than 25 percent of all of the carbon dioxide that we emit from using fossil fuels.

Climos still operates, but in 2009 Leinen founded a new organization, the Climate Response Fund, which examines issues and supports research on other possible climate techniques such as adding sulfur to the atmosphere to reflect solar radiation away from the earth, slowing the rise of global temperatures.

“No other organization is focused on dealing with all of the issues surrounding research on these techniques,” she says. “There are obvious questions about environmental safety. What are the impacts? What should the ground rules be for these experiments? How should they be governed? And what are the economic tradeoffs?”

These are all big questions. But Leinen can manage, for she has a strong record in tackling Big Questions, Big Science, and Big Ideas.

By Doug Peterson
Fall 2010