After six years in Australia, climate change scientist Nick Wolff ’89 is back in Brunswick working with Global Science and his long-time friend Kate Dempsey ’88 at The Nature Conservancy (TNC). He’s currently researching the impact of deforestation on human health.
Even though I spent most of my career studying things like larval lobster, whale feeding habits and plankton behavior in the Gulf of Maine, I have always been fascinated by coral reefs. I conducted my master’s research studying the impacts of fishing on coral reefs in the Virgin Islands in the early ’90s and my love of these amazing ecosystems never diminished. I became alarmed by the growing evidence that climate change was threatening reefs around the world so, when an opportunity to dive back into reef research came up, I jumped on it. I moved with my family to Australia in early 2011 and we just moved back to Maine last year. A six-year adventure.
My path to a science career was not typical. I spent my freshman year at Bowdoin taking courses in many departments—a shopping expedition. My goal was to major in a subject with the best professors, not necessarily in a subject that would lead to a predetermined career. I guess I was very idealistic in my view of what a liberal arts education should be. So, I settled on art history, a decision I have never regretted. My inspiring professors—Linda Docherty, Susan Wegner, Cliff Olds, John McKee—taught me the things I think are most important for a successful scientist: to think carefully and critically, to write well, to use evidence to back your arguments, and to be attuned to and respectful of different viewpoints. My overall point here is that all students at Bowdoin, regardless of major, will leave with the necessary fundamentals for a career in science.
Tropical deforestation is a major global threat driven in part by palm oil demand. Although biodiversity and carbon storage arguments for halting deforestation have had some local success (Brazil, for example), overall deforestation continues at a scary pace. With TNC colleagues, I have been researching the impact of deforestation on human health. For example, our current work in Borneo is demonstrating how villagers are at much greater risk of heat illness when working in deforested landscapes (rainforests are very effective at cooling local landscapes). We are hopeful that links between forest health and human health will resonate with local governments (like Indonesia) and inspire urgent action.
Maine is home. I fell in love with Maine while at Bowdoin because of its beauty and the fierce independence and authenticity of its people. Maine is where my son and daughter were born and is where my brother (Justin ’92) and his family and my parents all live. So, it was never a question that we would move back. However, after six years [outside the US], I was shocked by the current state of political discourse in the country. I am still shocked, saddened, and scared by politically-motivated attacks on science, facts, and evidence.
Kate and I have been close friends since our days at Bowdoin. Our daughters are only a month apart and have been best friends since birth. Kate’s dedication to conservation and praise of TNC as an organization inspired me to join TNC. The best decision of my career. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with such dedicated people towards our shared mission of protecting the planet for future generations.
An abbreviated version of this profile appeared in Bowdoin Magazine, spring/summer 2018.