What Would Susan Do?

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Susan Williams (center), at the CERF 2015 conference with three people who will always ask “What Would Susan Do”. Left to right: Leila Hamdan, Ruth Carmichael, Susan Williams, and Janet Nestlerode.

Over the last two days, the world of aquatic science has learned of the devastating loss of Dr. Susan L. Williams, Distinguished Professor of Evolution and Ecology at University of California Davis. Susan was Director of the Bodega Marine Lab (BML) from 2000 to 2010. She also led the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (CERF) as President (2009-2011). It was during that time that I came to know her.

I spent significant time working with Susan to shape the future of CERF. I now know that Susan was shaping the future of me. I learned what it meant to be a leader. I saw the rewards it brought, and the toll that it takes through her efforts. In 2011, I had the privilege of teaming with Susan on a day of congressional office visits during Capitol Hill Ocean Week. We talked with staff and legislators about the scientific needs arising from the Deepwater Horizon Spill. I watched how she valued the opinions of others. How she listened to what was said with an openness that allowed her to truly “hear”. I saw how she measured her words, so that when she spoke, they had deep, and meaningful impact.

From these experiences, a role model emerged for me – someone I could emulate to be a better colleague. At the same time, the radiant light of Susan’s friendship shone on me. Along with a small group of other CERF volunteers, we forged a sisterhood of service permeated with friendship, advice, understanding and love. We met for dinner at each CERF meeting to share stories, weigh leadership challenges, get advice, vent, and LAUGH. At our last dinner in November 2017, we sat at a round table, and spoke for hours. They flew by in seconds. I had the guilty pleasure of sitting next to Susan, and left the dinner soul nourished, and ready for new opportunities. We all took away from the dinners a powerful tool: the wisdom to ask, when faced with a difficult challenge, “What Would Susan Do“.

We must ask that now, as her loss presses a great weight on us. I looked back to the words and emails we exchanged over the years. To the times when I came to her for advice, letters of support, or a course correction. In this search, I found two gifts.

First, I found that I had the presence of mind to thank her for being in my life, and for guiding my career. I wrote her “Thank you for the strengthen you give me, even when you don’t know it”. This  brought some comfort, and  reminded me how special our community of science is, and how important it is to tell each other how we appreciate each other.

I also found what Susan would do. She would learn. She passed the quote below to me, at exactly the moment I needed it, and I share it with everyone who is weighing her loss . In her memory, I ask my colleagues, friends, and any future scientist who might follow in her footsteps to do good with your science, dare to be a leader, value the opinions of everyone, and measure your words. It is What Susan Would Do.

-LJH

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” -E. B. White, the Once and Future King