Into the Deep
If you probe beneath the surface and into the past of an oceanographer, you rarely find a tidy tale of a youth drawn inexorably to the sea. People find their way to the ocean and to oceanography from all over. From Astoria, Queens, for instance. That's where Von Damm spent her childhood. Her father, H.W. Von Damm, still runs a feed and grain business in Brooklyn that was started by his family 150 years ago. Science is not one of his passions. Perhaps her interest in chemistry was sparked initially by her mother, who had been a chemistry major. She did give her only child an unsolicited chemistry set one Christmas. Von Damm remembers it as a disappointment: Mom wouldn't let her do experiments in the kitchen sink.
Science always just seemed to fit the way Von Damm's brain worked. But why did she announce, in junior high, that she wanted to be an oceanographer? She doesn't remember. It wasn't the transatlantic voyage on the Hanseatic, when her parents took her to Germany one summer to discover their roots. Ocean travel was not an instant hit with young Von Damm; she was sick most of the way, in spite of glassy seas. "Luckily I outgrew that," she says.
She was lucky in other ways. Doors opened for her just as she was ready to walk through them. In the late 1960s, when she first announced her ambition to become an oceanographer, women were not even allowed on research ships. But Stuyvesant High School, the highly competitive public school in lower Manhattan that has educated many a scientist, started accepting girls just a year before she was ready to enter. Her freshman class at Yale was one of the first to include a substantial number of women. And the year she graduated from Yale and went off to MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to study oceanography was the year the first hydrothermal vents were discovered off the Galapagos. Her adviser at MIT, geochemist John Edmond, was one of the three people in Alvin when that discovery was made. Von Damm entered the new field of vent research just as it was opening.
Not that Von Damm isn't the sort to push open a door that is closed to her; she is precisely that sort: the determined, confident, self-assured sort. When she speaks in the classroom or in a meeting of research scientists aboard ship, it is without hesitation and without waffling; she doesn't muse aloud. "Karen is a straight shooter," says biologist Tim Shank of WHOI, who has sailed with her for 10 years. "You know exactly what you're working with, and that saves a lot of time."
"Karen is a demanding person in terms of what she expects from her colleagues and students--things need to be done correctly," says Dan Fornari, a marine geologist at WHOI who has been on 10 cruises with Von Damm over the past decade. "She's always super careful in her analyses. If she publishes a number you can take it to the bank."
Von Damm expects the same seriousness and attention to detail from her students. She's not the sort of professor you would try to snow--not more than once, anyway. But the experience and excitement she brings to teaching can change forever the way students feel about science. "This is the first time I have been excited about a science class," one student recently wrote in a course evaluation for Introductory Oceanography. "And I owe it all to the instructor." Another student summed up her impression of Von Damm's analytical geochemistry course in a single word: "WOW!"
Von Damm's time at sea is devoted to collecting water and mineral samples from hydrothermal vents, which means diving in Alvin. It is no picnic, in spite of the sandwiches and the great view. Alvin's titanium passenger sphere is only slightly wider--six feet--than Von Damm is tall, and she has to share that cramped space with a pilot and another scientist. ("She folds up pretty well," says Shank.) A dive typically lasts around eight hours, but half of that is travel time to the seafloor and back. On the way down, the temperature in the sub drops from steambath (if the dive site is in the tropics) to refrigerator (the water temperature at the seafloor is just above freezing). The scientists don wool sweaters and socks; they stare idly at the flashes of bioluminescence emitted by gelatinous animals (most of them unknown) that float past the portholes; and they listen to CDs. There are no toilets in Alvin, only plastic bottles, which makes some passengers hesitate to drink the coffee provided with the picnic lunch.
While the sub is puttering around on the bottom at a knot or so, the scientists are hunched over, each peering out her small downward-pointing porthole, muttering observations into a tape recorder and taking notes by flashlight. (The sub's inside lights are switched off to permit a better view of the outside.)
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