The Perfect Fit

The Perfect Fit

A biologist who roams the world's oceans studying endangered whales. A bacteriologist leading efforts to develop a new and potentially crucial source of energy: hydrogen-creating bacteria. A dedicated surgeon who gives transplant patients new life.

By David Treadwell and Alexis Grant '03 | Photos by Mary Levin, Johnny Hansen, and Yulia Ivashchenko

Paul Wade '80
The office décor reveals the man's mission. The book titles: Marine Mammals, Orcas, The History of Modern Whaling, and Aquatic Toxicology. The photos and illustrations of creatures from the sea. The small glass statue of a breaching whale. The three medals (gold, silver, and bronze) awarded by the U.S. Department of Commerce for stellar marine research.

How did Paul Wade '80, an unassuming former Colby soccer star, become an internationally renowned whale researcher? How did this self-confessed one-time ski bum rise to lead the NOAA Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program for the National Marine Mammal Laboratory?

The seed was planted at Colby. "I took a course on ecological theory from David Firmage that delved into population modeling, and I responded to it right away. Russell Cole's course on animal behavior and Miriam Bennett's course on animal physiology also fascinated me. I knew I wanted to be a wildlife biologist of some kind.—

Fisheries biologist Paul Wade '80, center, and fellow scientists aboard an inflatable boat they use to approach whales.
Photo by Yulia Ivashchenko, NOAA/National Marine Mammal Laboratory
Wade also knew he wanted to take some time off after graduation. After three years of skiing and rock-climbing at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, he moved on to Bozeman, Montana, where he earned an M.S. at Montana State University in biological sciences with a focus on population modeling. Then he went to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at U.C. San Diego, where his dissertation ("Abundance and Population Dynamics of Two Eastern Pacific Dolphins, Stenella attenuata and Stenella longirostris orientalis—) gave him early visibility in the field.

It was a fast start, and since then Wade's career has gone swimmingly.

Douglas DeMaster, Wade's mentor at Scripps and current colleague as the Center Director for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries, spotted Wade's potential early on. "Paul had the gift of being able to tackle very difficult and complex quantitative modeling, as well as the passion and interest in conservation biology,— Demaster said. "He loved the opportunity to go to sea, yet flourished in the enriched academic environment at Scripps.— Today, Wade's knowledge of logistic constraints in doing marine mammal research is invaluable when it comes to designing experiments that are likely to produce the desired results at an affordable cost, Demaster says.

For example, Wade's team initiated a three-year study in 2001 with the aim of providing information on killer whales in the Gulf of Alaska and around the Aleutian Islands. Because resident killer whales are known to be primarily fish-eaters and transient killer whales feed primarily on marine mammals (such as sea lions), the highest priority was to estimate the abundance of transient killer whales. Differences between resident-type killer whales and transient-type killer whales can be distinguished based on examination of differences in the dorsal fin and adjacent saddle patch region. Now Wade and his colleagues are determining what transients eat and where.

In addition to taking photographs of individual whales for later identification and tracking, the researchers collected biopsy samples by using a pneumatic rifle that shoots a lightweight dart. The dart rebounds from the whale and floats, retaining a small sample of epidermal tissue and subcutaneous blubber that are used in genetic and other studies.

Over the three-year period the team sighted 5,178 individual marine mammals including 1,038 killer whales (in groups of from two to 90), 773 humpback whales, 580 fin whales, 96 minke whales, 44 sperm whales, 123 gray whales, and 2,072 Dall's porpoises, among others.

"A typical day for me at sea,— Wade said, "would be to get up at six-thirty a.m. and rotate through observer watches on binoculars during the day to locate whales. When we find whales, we deploy our twenty-two-foot rigid-hulled inflatable so we can approach the whales closely for photographs and biopsy samples. I usually pilot the boat, and we can be back on the water anywhere from two to ten hours following whales. At some point during the evening back on the ship, I have to meet with the captain to check the weather and make plans for the next day. After nightfall I make sure all the data and samples get processed, catch up on things like writing reports and e-mail, and try to hit my bunk by midnight.—

Wade's knowledge, savvy, and patience garner high marks from his colleagues. Phillip Clapham, a renowned large-whale biologist who used to work in Woods Hole, says of Wade, "To really make a difference as a scientist, you need three qualities: considerable intellectual ability, a deep commitment to conservation, and a drive to merge your work with the sometimes harsh realities of politics. Many scientists do their work—well or ill—in an ivory tower and don't give a damn about whether what they do contributes to the preservation of the species that they study. Others believe strongly in conservation but don't know how to make the connection between science and the real world, in which political and management decisions are made. Paul is a rarity in that he practices outstanding science—some of the best in our field—and has a bulldog-like determination in the application of that work to conservation.—

Assessing the future, Wade says we're fortunate to be witnessing the strong recovery of many species of large whales, such as humpbacks, following the cessation of uncontrolled commercial whaling. In contrast, the fate of several other severely depleted whale species, such as North Atlantic right whales, remains uncertain because their populations are small and they are killed from collisions with ships and entanglements with fishing gear.

While his prognosis is mixed, Wade's passion remains pure. "I love learning about science and wildlife, which I get to do on a continuing basis,— he said. "I have friends in the scientific community throughout the world and I get to go to beautiful parts of the world. And, of course, it's always wonderful seeing whales.— —David Treadwell
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  • On August 22, 2006, Kate Cone, '76 wrote:
    Thanks for reacquainting me with Pat Wood, whom I knew at Colby as a dedicated "Pit Rat." Back then, '74 - '75, Pat had a permanent desk in The Pit, lower level of the library. He hobbled around with crutches (must have been the football injury), and was as a much more reliable fixture there than the Colby clock. It at once filled me with awe that he studied so much, then his work ethic became an inspiration. I eventually chose a desk in the stacks as "my spot." I somehow knew all these years Pat would accomplish as much as he has. Thanks again for a great profile.

  • On September 12, 2006, Amber wrote:
    Dr.Patrick Wood is one of the greatest men I have ever known. He performed a liver transplant on me when I was 13 years old. I am about to turn 24 and because of him I was able to get married, become a nurse, and have a family. He is my hero.