Marcia Kemper McNutt

2007 Maurice Ewing Medal Winner

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing, Calif.

Marcia Kemper McNutt was awarded the 2007 Maurice Ewing Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on 12 December 2007 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is ”for significant original contributions to the scientific understanding of the processes in the ocean; for the advancement of oceanographic engineering technology, and instrumentation; or outstanding service to marine science.“


It is a great honor for me to have the opportunity to deliver this citation for Marcia K. McNutt, the 2007 recipient of AGU’s Maurice Ewing Medal. Marcia has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the structure of oceanic lithosphere, served in leadership roles in the marine scientific community, and instigated new directions and technologies for ocean exploration.

Marcia received her undergraduate degree in physics and studied for the Ph.D. with Bob Parker and the late Bill Menard at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Her thesis led to two seminal papers on oceanic and continental isostasy. The first showed that flexure due to a young volcanic load could influence the subsidence and uplift history of nearby, preexisting volcanoes. This hypothesis, which explains why some seamounts and oceanic islands show uplift rather than subsidence, has had wide implications for basin development and sea level change. The second used 3-D spectral methods of analyzing topography and gravity data to argue that the Australian lithosphere responds to loads as a relatively strong structure at short time-scales and a weak one at long geological times. This method is now widely used and is at the center of current debates concerning the rheology and strength of continental lithosphere.

This early work led Marcia to a career-long interest in the Earth’s topography, gravity, and stress state. Marcia was the first to use the Brace-Goetz failure envelopes to show that subducting oceanic plates become ”moment saturated“ as they approach a deep-sea trenchouter rise system and therefore that they would yield, irrespective of their thermal age. She was also the first to use 3-D spectral methods to estimate the effective elastic thickness of young oceanic lithosphere, to use linear filters to determine the compensation depth of midplate topographic swells, and to document the evidence for the existence of a South Pacific ”superswell.“

In recent years, Marcia has assumed an increasing leadership role in the ocean sciences. She has contributed as a panelist in the Ocean Drilling Program, a member of ocean-related National Research Council committees, and, more recently, a governor of the Joint Oceanographic Institutions. She has served the AGU as a meticulous reviewer for its journals, president of its Tectonophysics section, and, most recently, president. Currently, Marcia is president and chief executive officer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, and it has been under her leadership that the institute has emerged as one of the world’s leading centers in ocean technology, especially in the design and construction of new tethered and robotic underwater vehicles and in situ sensor packages for sampling the ocean and its biota.

Marcia is passionate about her work and has been an inspiration to students and early career scientists alike. She has gone out of her way to engage others, as is evidenced by her work on topics as diverse as the role of women in science and science education in schools. I was lucky enough to have met Maurice Ewing and to have experienced firsthand his enthusiasm for unraveling the secrets of the ocean floor. Marcia, through her intellect, dedication, and courage, embodies much of that spirit.

—ANTHONY B. WATTS, University of Oxford


Thank you, Tony, and thank you to the U.S. Navy and AGU.

Anything I have achieved I owe to the convergence of three factors. The first is the extremely supportive environment during my career-building years at MIT, under the alert mentorship of department heads extraordinaire Bill Brace and Tom Jordan. Bill realized long before I did that a Radcliffe fellowship to buy me out of teaching for a year would be a really good idea while I was expecting the twins. Thanks to that brilliant, preemptive move, I published seven papers that year, won the Macelwane Medal, and soon after earned tenure. Tom patiently taught me, and showed by example, how to do what counts. When I arrived at MIT there was only one woman on the faculty in my department; when I left 15 years later, there were five confident women leading the way for others in the School of Science.

The second factor was Tony Watts himself. As was so aptly demonstrated by the failed experiment of the Soviet economic system, absent competition we seldom reach our highest potential. For many years my group at MIT and Tony’s at Lamont were working on similar classes of problems, and there was a friendly rivalry back and forth to be the first to come up with the explanation for some vexing observation or a more elegant solution to a difficult computation. Whether reviews came from Tony himself or from a student or postdoc, they were always polite, professional, constructive, and helpful. These ways of behaving are set from the top down, and become for generations after the accepted way for practitioners in that field to behave. We benefited from having had a true gentleman like Tony leading the field in marine geo-physics. Not all fields have been so fortunate.

The final, and probably most important, factor has been my family. My mother, who is with me tonight, and my father, who is with me in spirit, allowed me to pursue every dream, unfettered, regardless of whether they understood anything I was doing! In some cosmic coincidence, I met my wonderful husband, Ian Young, on the Maurice Ewing (the vessel, not the man or the medal), and ever since he has been the captain of my heart, piloting it to tranquil harbors. I have been blessed with three perfect daughters, and through their achievements I’ve been able to enjoy, vicariously, accomplishments it was simply not possible to fit into one lifetime.

I don’t know what moment of temporary insanity 10 years ago led the MBARI board of directors to entrust an institution heavily invested in marine biology to a midcareer marine geophysicist with no adminis-trative experience. But it has been a wonderful ride, working with those entrusted with David Packard’s legacy to see his dreams come alive! MBARI, with its emphasis on ocean exploration, technology development, and in situ ocean instrumentation, is Maurice Ewing’s kind of place. This medal, in Ewing’s image, is going to feel right at home. Thank you all, very much!

—MARCIA KEMPER MCNUTT, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing, Calif.