Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2008 | People

Ocean Authority: Ray Highsmith

By IAM Staff
National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology director Ray Highsmith stands in front of his namesake, a marine lab in Alaska where scientists explore how the area's ecosystem responds to change.

How does an Iowan who grew up in the center of a landlocked state end up as director of a prominent underwater research institute and with a government lab named in his honor?

For Ray Highsmith, 72BA, the encouragement of a UI instructor made it all possible. Former Iowa zoology professor Hugh Dingle gave Highsmith—an undergraduate at the time—a seat in his graduate lab and a job as his assistant on an expedition to research atolls and crustaceans in the Marshall Islands, southwest of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. "Up until then, I was going to study insects," says Highsmith, "so that opportunity changed my life."

Now Highsmith serves as executive director of the University of Mississippi (UM)-based National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology, where he supervises scientists whose underwater discoveries can help improve life on land. Researchers work on projects that include installing an observatory in the Gulf of Mexico; developing undersea vehicles that can improve seafloor mapping, detect seismic activity, and spot oil deposits; and finding natural products that can be used to make medicines such as pain relievers and anti-cancer drugs.

Previously, Highsmith spent more than 20 years as director of a marine laboratory in Kasitsna Bay, Alaska, run by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. When he returned to cut the sea kelp ribbon at the lab's grand reopening this past fall, he was surprised to learn the facility had been named after him. Lab staff say it would have closed without his leadership and efforts to persuade the federal government to give $12 million for much-needed improvements.

Highsmith, who also directs the UM Field Station and the Center for Water and Wetland Resources, sees firsthand the importance of such marine ecology endeavors. "The ocean is critical to life on earth," he says. "It produces oxygen for the atmosphere, food for humanity, and [a highway for] commerce. Those reasons alone should cause us to learn more."