12/03/2010 12:28 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Inspiration from Izzie

Each of us can recount a person in our lives that shaped who we are. Sadly, I lost an important mentor this past month with the passing of Isabella Aiona Abbott.

Izzie, as she was known, was a professor of biological sciences at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station here in Pacific Grove, California. I first met her when I signed up to take a college summer field course in marine algae. While this topic may not exactly sound riveting, I was a student of botany and was determined to learn all I could about the incredible diversity of the plant world.

2010-12-03-IzzieAbbott.jpgOn the first day of class, we gathered in the damp lab building at the marine station, ready for several hours devoted to orientation and book work. Instead, Izzie announced that we were immediately going out to collect algae, to take advantage of a good low tide. We clambered into the car, drove a short distance to the rocky shore and fanned out in our hip waders to collect a stunning array of different colors and shapes of seaweeds that filled the tide pools. Later, Izzie would hover and advise us on the nuances of identifying the different species.

Izzie was a taxonomist, having devoted her career to classifying the myriad species of seaweeds that inhabit California's rich marine waters. I couldn't wait to please her by adding a new plant to my species list, which I viewed as a treasure hunt of sorts. After that summer, she invited me to return as a teaching assistant and served as advisor on my senior thesis. Later, in graduate school, I would still return to her for help with the hard-to-identify species, and we'd share our enthusiasm for these fascinating plants that few people seemed to even know existed.

Izzie taught and conducted research at Stanford for thirty years, then returned to her beloved home state to continue her many contributions as a professor at University of Hawaii. She co-authored the definitive text on marine algae of California, and was a renowned expert on Central Pacific algae, discovering and naming more than 200 species during her lifetime.

But her most important contribution was inspiring the thousands of students who crossed her path.

Izzie was the first woman on the biological sciences faculty at Stanford, and she was a remarkable pioneer. Thanks to her dedication, and that of other mentors who followed her, today we are fortunate to have outstanding women scientists like Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, and administrator of NOAA; and Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S.Geological Survey, leading some of our nation's top agencies as we seek to address today's critical environmental challenges. Like Izzie, Jane and Marcia have inspired countless students during their careers, with many more to follow.

It all starts by providing opportunities for girls to experience the natural world and learn about it with a trusted adult who takes an interest in them. That's the goal of our Young Women in Science program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where middle school girls have the opportunity through our summer programs to explore the amazing nature here in Monterey Bay. They conduct science investigations with their peers, learn to present their results and meet active ocean scientists at work. These students say these encounters change their assumptions about who scientists are, and what it would take to be one. Mainly, they see that although it can be a lot of work, it's also hugely rewarding and a lot of fun.

That's the message I got from Izzie Abbott, and I'm grateful she shared it with me.

(Credit photo to Celia Smith, Ph.D.)

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.