Rick and Debbie During Their Time at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (1987–2008)

by Herbert Windom

Editor’s note: The author, Herb Windom, was the first faculty scientist hired at Skidaway Institute and served as director for several years in the 1990s.

During 1986, the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography initiated a search for a marine organic geochemist. Dave Menzel, our director at the time, had met and talked with Stuart Wakeham, who was a post-doc at Woods Hole, about coming to Savannah, so he had a leg up on other applicants for the job. I chaired the search committee, and we advertised the job reasonably widely, thinking it would be straightforward. Then we received an application from Rick Jahnke, who at the time was an assistant research geochemist at Scripps Institute in La Jolla, Calf. Rick was not on our radar, but our faculty knew of him and held him in high regard. We figured that he was “testing the waters” as a means of leveraging a more secure position at Scripps. However, given his resume and our familiarity with his work, we thought it would be money well-spent just to get him to Skidaway to have a look around. We had no expectations that he would be seriously interested.


Rick Jahnke in 2007

During his visit, he and I had a frank discussion about his intentions. I told him that we were surprised that he would really consider leaving Scripps to come to Skidaway Institute, since he was a major part of the team responsible for the operation and application of bottom landers to seafloor research there. However, he was very open and honest and explained that he felt his contributions to research at Scripps was being overlooked and viewed the position at Skidaway to be a good career move. He said he was not interested in using a job offer as leverage to stay in La Jolla. He said he would seriously consider a move to Skidaway if offered the job.

We made the job offer and were pleasantly surprised that he accepted it, even though Scripps made a counter offer. As Rick explained it, by that time he had lost his emotional attachment to the place. Rick arrived in July 1987 and brought along a bonus in the form of Debbie Craven, his technician. It turned out that Debbie was more than a super technician. From the very start, we could see that Debbie and Rick were not only an efficient and effective research team, but they were committed and supportive of each other in every way and still are. (Rick and Debbie later married.)

They hit the ground running at Skidaway. Rick continued his work in developing devices for in situ seabed sampling and analysis. It was at Skidaway where he made his major contributions to the understanding of geochemical processes at the seafloor. His research on carbon burial in marine sediments provided a major contribution to the understanding of the global carbon budget.

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Rick talks with then-state representative Bob Smith on board the R/V Savannah in October 2005.

At Skidaway, Rick turned more attention to the coastal ocean, focusing on processes such as benthic primary production and nutrient exchange on continental shelves. During 1999 he was appointed chair of the National Science Foundation’s Coastal Oceans Processes (CoOP) Program Scientific Steering Committee. He continued in this position during his tenure at Skidaway. An example of Rick and Debbie’s strong teamwork was their collaboration in CoOP where Debbie assumed the responsibility as editor of the CoOP Newsletter while Rick provided the leadership. It turns out that Debbie is an excellent scientific editor and has had a great deal to do with Rick’s successful communication of his research (I am sure that I would get no argument from Rick on this point).

Perhaps motivated by institutional pride, I point out that Rick solidified the scientific reputation of Skidaway Institute during his time there. His research here was generally collaborative with researchers all over the world as reflected in his publications (dominantly multi-authored). Likewise, he served in various capacities, supporting the activities of many important national and international organizations that have led the way in important areas of marine science. Although Rick’s science and service have a significant multi-organizational flavor, he still had a strong commitment to Skidaway Institute, as did Debbie. Rick was a driving force in the development of collaborative research efforts among the faculty. This is also reflected in his publications, which include coauthored papers with virtually every faculty member at Skidaway during his tenure. I was a coauthor on several of Rick’s publications and, toward the end of his tenure here, he and I collaborated on our first venture into the investigation of significance of groundwater discharge to the coastal ocean. Likewise, Debbie coauthored papers with members of the faculty other than Rick. However, she was happy to stay out of the “spotlight” when it came to authorship, although she often contributed significantly. She was also a wonderful proof reader/editor of institutional publications, and many of us took advantage of this expertise when putting together our own manuscripts.

Rick was a major force in getting Skidaway Insitute more involved in formalized educational activities. While most of the faculty had, historically, attracted graduate students on an ad hoc basis, Rick helped to organize summer courses and student visits to attract them to Skidaway. Early on, a series of “distance learning” courses were developed using satellite transmission. Rick was a major contributor to this approach and curriculum development.

The Rick/Debbie team operated with amazing efficiency in both research and science program management. In my opinion, however, their teamwork in local institutional projects was where this synergy was most effective. When the Institute began to engage more formally in educational activities, it became apparent that we needed adequate housing to accommodate increased numbers of students for longer periods. When the institute was founded in 1968, 680 acres of land on Skidway Island was donated by the Roebling family (of Roebling wire/Brooklyn Bridge fame) to accommodate the Institute. Along with the land, the institute inherited two existing docks, a barge that brought material to the island (The bridge to the island was completed in 1970.), a shop, a show barn (for the Roebling’s’ prized Black Angus bulls) and several small houses/apartments that had been used by workers on the Roebling estate. After some rehabbing, a couple of the old houses could be used for visiting scientists, but not much thought was given to any long-term housing plan. Moreover, graduate students had to find housing off the island. As visitors and students increased in the 1980s, the housing problem needed to be addressed.

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Debbie (right) with Soo Frischer in 2006.

Somehow, Debbie was coerced into taking on the job of improving housing on campus. This, though, would consume considerable time (beyond the normal working day) for the remainder of her time at Skidaway. It started with the barn. The barn, because of its useful open space, provided a staging area for the bottom landers prior to cruises and, consequently, this was where Debbie and Rick spent a fair amount of time. Always recognizing opportunities, she noticed that an apartment connected to the barn could be renovated into a habitable space. As with everything in which she got involved, Debbie totally committed herself to the task. She was still running Rick’s lab, but multi-tasking? No problem.

From then on, Debbie took the lead in acquiring and improving housing at Skidaway. Initially, Debbie oversaw the remodeling of the original houses on campus This included a duplex and a house, previously used as a residence for Roebling’s veterinarian. She created a communal laundry room for campus residents. Debbie spent a lot of volunteer hours there herself, cleaning sheets and towels for visitor housing. The funds for these renovations were obtained through an NSF proposal written by Debbie. Subsequently, two additional NSF proposals (also shepherded by Debbie) resulted in grants to build the “Quadraplex” in 1999 to accommodate more students. A second grant followed in 2006, which provided funds for construction of the “Commons.” Moreover, as a testament of Debbie’s humility and connection to the Skidaway community, all of the housing units are named for members of the staff who worked in the business office, shop and grounds. The one exception is an apartment named for David Menzel who was our director for 23 years.

Debbie volunteered her time to the housing effort while she ran Rick’s lab. She also managed the housing schedule and, I believe, she did a fair amount of cleaning when it was required at the last minute. Rick also shared this deep commitment to serve the Institute beyond just his research, and I’m sure he was helping Debbie clean sheets and other housing-related chores. Rick was always one of the most outspoken members of the faculty. During planning retreats and faculty meetings, his ideas and recommendations were the most constructive and generally carried the day. He was always prepared to argue his opinion, often in direct conflict with the views of the administration (of which he became a part during the latter part of his tenure), but always with the best interests of the institute in mind.

Rick, like Debbie, was also very “hands on” when it came to contributing to the Institute beyond his research. The best example of this was his efforts with regard to the planning and construction of the Institute’s research vessel Savannah. During the late 1990s, the Institute initiated the effort to acquire a vessel designed for coastal oceanographic research. Up until that time, the institute had relied on a converted fishing boat. The R/V Blue Fin was extremely limited in its capacity to accommodate multi-investigator research using modern technology. Its ability to operate for cruises of more than a week, and it stability and safety were all problematic.

The first obstacle was the University System of Georgia, which had never funded the construction of a ship. Rick was associate director during this period and was engaged in the effort to convince the chancellor’s office that they needed to think of this ship as a floating building, more in line with their idea of “a capital project.” I think Rick originated that idea. Rick probably had more shipboard experience than any other member of the faculty did at the time, so he agreed to take on the job of working with the faculty to develop the research vessel’s mission. He then worked with a marine architect to develop a design that fit that mission (including wave tank studies) on which an estimate of costs could be developed in preparation for a proposal for funding. This took an incredible amount time and attention away from his research, but Debbie had his back and his (and Debbie’s) research productivity maintained about three publications a year, not to mention all his other commitments (education, panels, committees, etc.).

Ultimately, we received the funds for construction of the vessel and, again, Rick provided the administrative oversight of the construction and outfitting of the vessel. On May 25, 2001, the R/V Savannah was launched at the Washburn and Doughty shipyard in Booth Bay, Maine (Fig. 1, Debbie and Rick). The Savannah was designed specifically for coastal ocean research, and to this day, it remains as one of the busiest vessels in the UNOLS Fleet.

One response to “Rick and Debbie During Their Time at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (1987–2008)

  1. Herb,

    Thanks for the article on the Skidaway history that I missed out on.


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