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In Memoriam: Susan Williams, Restoring Life to the Sea

May 4 2018


Photo: Aquarium of the Pacific.

We are heartbroken at the news of Susan's passing on April 24th in a car crash near Petaluma. Please read Chris Field's tribute to Susan below.

Susan and I both became Leopold Fellows in 2000, as part of the second cohort. As with every group of fellows, the cohort developed strong bonds through the program and stayed close afterward. The first few groups, especially, felt like pioneers. The sense of helping move ecology in new directions was exciting but scary. In the Leopold training, Susan was one of the grown-ups. She took everything in stride and laughed at her own missteps. Her integrity and good-heartedness elevated every exercise and conversation. Later, the openness and enthusiasm Susan brought to the Leopold Fellows illuminated her teaching, her commitment to diversity and inclusion, and her dedication to ocean conservation. I am so grateful for the chance to have been influenced by Susan’s wisdom, vision, and goodness.

Susan Williams put the leadership framework in action in an exemplary way. We can look to her work in coral reef rehabilitation in Indonesia alongside her corporate partner, Mars SymbioScience, as a testament to the value of engaging in cross-sector collaboration and building trust across both professional and cultural divides. The project consisted of installing a web of spider-like structures on the devastated seabed to encourage coral regrowth. With Susan's expertise and scientific rigor, the Mars team was able to make substantial progress and document it with solid data collection. Despite some hurdles along the way, it was a deeply gratifying and valuable experience for the renowned marine biologist and long time director of the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab. In 2017 Susan joined with 10 other fellows to tell their leadership stories. Her narrative captures some of her the many qualities she exuded—that of presence, generosity, and spiritedness. You can read the full narrative on our website soon.

Excerpt from Holding My Own: A Story of Conflict, Collaboration, and Reef Conservation in Indonesia

Although Mars and the scientists share a common goal of rebuilding a reef for sustainable island livelihoods, our approaches are very different. The scientists want data to validate the technique, and we advocate letting the rehab recover from disturbances on its own, or not, to evaluate its resiliency. The Mars team wants to build reef as quickly as possible to show to Indonesian ministers, local authorities, and their bosses at Mars, Inc., so they tinker with the rehab and even replace sections they don't like, causing a loss of data needed to document its trajectory. How do we navigate and compromise? How do we listen and respond in constructive ways? We have had to be proactive in articulating anything that compromises data, even if compromise happens in the end, and we need to make interim reports, answer questions, and provide input without delay. We all rely on the trust we've built.

The Americans built trust by returning to UNHAS [Hasanuddin University], writing proposals, helping to edit English manuscripts, and spending days talking to interested faculty and students, instead of showing up for one seminar, never to be seen again. The Indonesians are exceptionally tolerant of our ignorance about their country and customs and our impatience with the concept that time is fluid and “soon” can mean in the next hour, day, or month. We depend on them for navigation in every way. I can help UNHAS colleagues understand the expectations of American business collaborators as I understand them better myself, thanks to the willingness of Frank and his team to listen to a scientist. We can all work a little faster to deliver tangible results.

The video below outlines the work accomplished by Susan and her team.

See Susan talking about her other work here (start at 14:02). Read an obituary from the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat here.