For nearly 30 years, marine ecologist Nancy Rabalais has studied the ocean "dead zones" that occur in the Gulf of Mexico and other coastal systems. By collaborating with researchers from other fields, Rabalais has increased our understanding of these hypoxic zones — areas of water with low levels of dissolved oxygen — and how they can be mitigated.

 

Her work, long pushed to the side by industry, has now been recognized: the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation this week named her one of the 23 recipients of this year's MacArthur Fellowships. Each fellow will receive $50,000 over the next five years that they can spend in any way they desire to "pursue their own creative, intellectual and professional inclinations," according to the foundation's website.

 

Commonly known as the "MacArthur Genius" awards, the fellowships honor the "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction." Fellows must show exceptional creativity and promise for important future advances that would benefit from the fellowship.

 

"It's a huge honor," the 62-year-old Rabalais told The Advocate, a newspaper in her home state of Louisiana. "I've been in awe of these people and what they’ve accomplished. I never thought I'd get one."

 

Rabalais, executive director and professor of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, told the paper she will put the MacArthur grant toward her continuing research into ocean dead zones, a necessary move since "my research funds are getting pretty tight," she said.

 

The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is the second-largest man-made dead zone in the world, a situation created by agricultural fertilizer runoff. The water in these zones becomes inhospitable, either killing fish and crabs or sending them into other territories.

 

Rabalais has been a frequent speaker about the dangers of hypoxic zones, even testifying at congressional hearings. Although her work was dismissed by fertilizer manufacturers and others for many years, it is now widely accepted, according to Mark Davis, senior research fellow and director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane University.

 

The ecologist, who has also been studying the effect of oil-eating bacteria used after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, suggest that the MacArthur grant recognizes her persistence over the past 30 years.

 

Rabalais discusses her work in this MacArthur Foundation-produced video:

 

 

Related MacArthur story on MNN: Innovative astronomer named MacArthur 'genius' fellow