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MBARI mourns the passing of inaugural Executive Director Richard Barber

MBARI mourns the passing of its inaugural Executive Director, whose early leadership laid the foundation for a new type of ocean research institute focused on teamwork and technology. Image: Jonathan Blair © Monterey Bay Aquarium

MBARI mourns the passing of inaugural Executive Director Richard Barber

Portrait of Richard Barber wearing a pale blue shirt, patterned dark blue tie, and metal-frame glasses. This portrait was taken against a mottled mauve background.
As MBARI’s inaugural Executive Director, Richard Barber played an important role in shaping MBARI’s mission. Image courtesy of Duke University

MBARI’s inaugural Executive Director, Richard Barber, passed away on April 4 at the age of 85. As founding director, Barber helped forge the character of a fledgling institution and played an important role in shaping MBARI’s mission to build and scale the innovative technology needed to understand and protect our ocean.

“Dick helped lay the groundwork for everything that MBARI has gone on to achieve,” said MBARI CEO and President Chris Scholin. “His holistic, systems-oriented approach and pioneering research in biogeochemistry continues to thrive at MBARI today in high-profile, multi-institutional efforts that monitor ocean health like GO-BGC, the Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Array. His efforts will always be part of our DNA.”

MBARI was founded in 1987 by David Packard who wanted to create a new type of oceanographic research institute that was willing to think big and be bold about overcoming the technical challenges of ocean access. Among the first official decisions of the newly formed board of directors was to hire Barber—then at Duke University.

Years before opening state-of-the-art research facilities in Moss Landing, California, at the head of the Monterey Canyon, MBARI got its start in Pacific Grove. With just five employees to start, Barber worked to grow  the number of scientists and engineers at the institute and created a research plan that captured the dauntless vision set forth by Packard. Barber served as Executive Director until 1990.

Black-and-white photo of MBARI’s original building.
MBARI’s original building was in Pacific Grove, California. There, Barber developed MBARI’s research program focused on understanding the complex California Current. Image: © MBARI

Barber’s career spanned more than 50 years. He was interested in studying the relationships between physics, chemistry, and biology, and he sought to understand how variations in climate impacted ecosystems in the Pacific, Indian, and Southern Ocean. His research found that ocean biogeochemical processes play an important role in taking the carbon dioxide emissions from human activities out of the atmosphere by transporting carbon into the deep ocean where it is stored for thousands of years. Barber helped shine a spotlight on the substantive role the ocean plays in regulating Earth’s climate and how it might, in turn, be impacted by global warming.

During his tenure at MBARI, Barber sought to improve the technical capacity for biological observations. In his typical big-picture view of things, he organized MBARI research programs to explore the diverse web of connections among physical and biological factors that guide life in the California Current along Monterey Bay. “It was an idea before its time,” said MBARI Senior Scientist Francisco Chavez, “but thanks to Dick’s vision and 36 years of steady data collection, Monterey Bay is now one of the most well-studied marine environments in the world.”

Barber earned his doctoral degree in biological sciences from Stanford University in 1967, and Bachelor of Science degrees in zoology and botany from Utah State University in 1962. He served as a postdoctoral fellow and assistant scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and joined the faculty of Duke University in 1970. During his time at Duke, Barber advised 15 PhD students, including Chavez.

Four members of MBARI’s inaugural leadership team sitting around a brown table reviewing documents. In the background are bookcases full of binders and paper files.
MBARI’s inaugural leadership team included (from right) Technical Director Mike Lee, Executive Director Richard Barber, Project Director Derek Baylis, and Controller Tom Kirker. Image: © MBARI

Barber’s research also played a seminal role in our understanding of interannual climate variability and El Niño—the coupled ocean-atmosphere phenomenon that has global impacts on weather and climate. “Barber was a big thinker and he recognized that biological oceanographers needed to collect data about biological conditions over extended periods of time, just like their physical oceanography colleagues, in order to measure the biological response to physical variability,” said Chavez. With funding from the National Science Foundation, Barber and Chavez were part of a team that established two time series stations, one in northern Peru offshore of the city of Paita, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from where Chavez was born, and the other in Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos Islands. Serendipitously the team started the observations in June of 1982, three months before the onset of one of the biggest El Niño events in the modern record. That led to a seminal paper published in Science in 1983 by Barber and Chavez, titled the “Biological consequences of El Niño.”

In 1990, Barber returned to the Duke Marine Lab as the Harvey W. Smith Professor of Biological Oceanography, a post he held until he became a professor emeritus in 2006.

Learn more about Barber’s academic contributions here.

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