November 15, 2011

The Scientist: Bemis ’76 Loves Fish, Leads Shoals

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The gulf oil spill, talks of coral bleaching, overfishing and other current events have been recent reminders of the importance of the oceans in our lives. As is often the case in many other environmental and oceanic initiatives, Cornell­ians work tirelessly to solve them, despite its inland location. The strength of Shoals Marine Laboratory can, in part, be attributed to its renowned facility on Appeldore Is­land, Maine. The lab is operated jointly by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire and run by Prof. Willy Bemis ’76, ecology and evolutionary biology. Bemis’ academic interests were profoundly influenced by his time spent at Cornell, he said. He credits his interest in marine fishes to a course he took freshman year called “The Vertebrates.”  During his freshman year, he also met J.B. Heiser Ph.D. ’81, a graduate student at the time, studying the biology of certain coral reef fishes. Heiser would later become the second director of Shoals, and Bemis followed as his successor. Reflecting on the connection, Bemis said, “All of it felt to me like closing a circle, being back here at Cornell and in the role J.B. had for so many years.”After Cornell, Bemis went on to earn his masters at Michigan and Ph.D. at Berkeley. Upon finishing his education, he spent twenty years at the University of Massachusetts, but his time on Appeldore Island has been most substantial.In addition to running Shoals, Bemis has his own research and teaching responsibilities. He teaches a wide range of classes on the island including Shoals Marine Lab Biology 1610: Ecology and the Marine Environment and BioSM 3210: Anatomy and Function of Marine Vertebrates. Shark, sturgeon and other fin-fishes are the focus of his research, which he also carries out on the island.  “If you look at my career I’m just as interested about fish as I was in high school and it’s a wonderful thing to retain the chance to study fish in that kind of capacity,” Bemis said.The combination of research and teaching fits his interests well. Bemis was able to design a course on sharks that he then taught at Shoals. The course led to further research on the same topic by former students. His teaching at Cornell is limited to guest lectures, though Bemis recently made waves when the administration announced they were planning on introducing his own shark course to the main campus due to its popularity at Shoals.Appeldore Island is more than just a research station for Bemis: He revels in his extended role that includes outreach and facility management. Six miles off the coast of the Maine-New Hampshire border, the island has limited resources at its disposal. Under the supervision of Bemis, the island has significantly reduced its environmental impact with the use of solar panels, a wind turbine and composting toilets. Bemis cites the island as a model for the rest of the world that is also confronted with declinig resource availability.On the island, Bemis’ interests are not limited to his fish. He is also knowledgeable about the rich culturally history of the island. The island was once the home of a hotel that attracted famous cultural icons, including Childe Hassam, a famous American impressionist painter. His enthusiasm for the future of the island even exceeds the past though. “Cornell is an a unique position to make an impact on marine science…this is a part of a bigger picture, Cornell has a footprint essentially all over the world,” Bemis said.

Original Author: Ellis Carpenter