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VIMS professor, alumna honored with SCHEV outstanding faculty awards

  • Outstanding professor:
    Outstanding professor:  Deborah Bronk says her greatest inspiration “is watching my students evolve into confident, caring scientists."  W&M Alumni Magazine photo
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Professor Deborah Bronk of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science has been selected as one of the commonwealth’s outstanding faculty members by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).

Bronk, Moses D. Nunnally Distinguished Professor in W&M’s School of Marine Science at VIMS, was one of 12 faculty members from Virginia’s public and private colleges and universities being honored with a 2018 SCHEV Outstanding Faculty Award during a luncheon in Richmond, Virginia, March 1. Also honored were Jennifer Martin, a biology professor at Thomas Nelson Community College who received her Ph.D. in marine science from VIMS in 2015, and Jaime Settle, assistant professor of government at W&M, who received a 2018 Rising Star award from SCHEV.

Established in 1987, the SCHEV awards program recognizes faculty exhibiting the highest level of scholarship, teaching, mentoring, public service, and research.

VIMS Dean and Director John Wells says, "Debbie shines as one of VIMS' most accomplished researchers, dedicated teachers and effective mentors. I can’t imagine a more distinguished recipient of this most prestigious of faculty awards."

Professor Linda Schaffner, associate dean of academic studies at VIMS, adds, "Debbie is a devoted mentor to her graduate students, and has shared her expertise and passion with numerous undergrads by teaching the introductory course for marine science minors at William & Mary.”

Schaffner also lauds Martin’s selection. “Our School of Marine Science has a long history of producing outstanding young scholars who go on to leadership positions in science, policy, and education,” she says. “I enjoyed working with Jennifer during her time at VIMS, and now enjoy keeping track as she blossoms in her career."


One of the world’s foremost authorities on ocean nitrogen, Bronk has taught graduate-level courses on a number of related topics, including Harmful Algal Blooms and Isotope Biogeochemistry. For many years she also coordinated the capstone course for all VIMS graduate students, Coastal and Estuarine Processes and Issues.

Bronk says her greatest inspiration “is watching my students evolve into confident, caring scientists." While at VIMS, those students have authored more than 30 manuscripts in scientific journals and won prestigious fellowships from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation. They have also thrived in their subsequent careers. Jason See travels the world as a consultant for Ecology and Environment, Inc., while Joel Hoffman now ranks as a supervising biologist at EPA, conducting cutting-edge work in Great Lakes ecology. Most recently, Rachel Sipler accepted a prestigious Tier 2 Canada Chair Assistant Professorship at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

Bronk’s commitment to undergraduate education includes yearly visits to VIMS’ Eastern Shore Lab to offer marine-science minors a hands-on introduction to the barrier islands and marshes of the Atlantic coast. She frequently participates in the NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program at VIMS, having hosted seven REU students as well as six high school interns.

If there are extra berths on her research expeditions, Bronk fills them with students. In 2009, she took two undergrads on a weeklong research expedition on Chesapeake Bay, and an undergraduate intern joined her last summer to study nitrogen fixation in the Arctic. In fall 2017, she hosted seven students on a voyage through the northeast Atlantic to study nitrogen uptake.

Discovery and service

Bronk’s research focuses on the important role that nitrogen plays in the health of aquatic ecosystems. She has led or participated in more than 50 research expeditions, spearheading a global effort to discover how organisms take up and produce nitrogen in the ocean. She has also pioneered new laboratory techniques for measuring nitrogen — which occurs in a complex array of compounds and phases, from the major gas in our atmosphere to a dissolved component of seawater and a building block of DNA — and applied her research findings to help develop methods for removing organic nitrogen from wastewater. She has published 88 manuscripts in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and earned more than 30 research grants totaling nearly $9 million.

What makes these accomplishments even more remarkable, says Wells, is that Bronk has simultaneously provided outstanding service to W&M and the aquatic science community. At VIMS, she has chaired the Admissions Committee and the Department of Physical Sciences, and served on the Academic Council, Faculty Council, and Faculty Status and Tenure Review Committees. In 2008, she was elected President of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO), the largest international society devoted to the aquatic sciences. From 2012-2015, she served at the National Science Foundation, ultimately as director of the Division of Ocean Sciences, where she oversaw the nation’s basic research agenda in oceanography.

Bronk's achievements have been recognized with many previous awards. She is the recipient of the prestigious Lindeman Award, given annually by ASLO to recognize the outstanding paper by a young aquatic scientist; the Antarctic Service Medal from the US Armed Forces; the Dean's Prize for the Advancement of Women in Science from VIMS; and the Plumeri Award for Faculty Excellence from W&M.

Bronk’s most recent accomplishment is her selection as president of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine, a private, non-profit research institution focused on the microbial life and biogeochemical dynamics of the world’s ocean.

Says Wells, “We at VIMS are sad to see Debbie leave, but we’re excited that she will be pursuing this new opportunity, and look forward to strong interactions between our institutions.” Bronk will still play a role at VIMS, reserving 10 percent of her time during the next few years to mentoring her current students and completing other research projects."