New Faculty Profile: T H O M A S ' Z A C K ' P O W E L L

by Julia Sommer

How many Berkeley professors can claim Berkeley BA and PhD degrees, that all four siblings and both parents are Berkeley graduates, and that they were recruited to play on Cal's 1960 football team by then football end coach Bill Walsh?

Thomas "Zack" Powell, professor of integrative biology, who joined the faculty this fall after 24 years at UC Davis, is this marvel.

Powell is an anomaly in other ways as well. He received his PhD in physics in 1970 based on high-energy work at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, but is now an oceanographer and aquatic ecologist.

Looking back on why he came to Berkeley as a scholar-athlete in 1960, Powell says: "In 1959, Cal won the Rose Bowl, the NCAA basketball championship, and the man I was to get my PhD with--Owen Chamberlain--won the Nobel prize. Who wouldn't have wanted to come to Berkeley?"

"You could do anything here, and better than anyplace else in the world. Despite the deplorable stuff that's happened since, I still feel that way about Berkeley."

Much of Powell's current work is devoted to chairing the US GLOBEC Scientific Steering Committee, an effort organized by oceanographers and fisheries scientists to investigate how global climate change may affect sea animals. It is part of the US Global Change Research Program.

With a budget of about $8 million a year from the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US GLOBEC is now based at Berkeley, thanks to Powell.

But Berkeley almost lost Powell to Princeton. Last year, when Princeton was wooing Powell and his wife, integrative biology professor Mimi Koehl, Chancellor Tien intervened with offers they couldn't refuse. Now Powell and Koehl occupy offices close to each other and collaborate on some research projects.

Powell's particular area of interest is plankton. The tiny forms of plant and animal life, including the larvae of most marine animals, depend on currents to move and thus survive.

It was the physics of these all-important currents that originally led Powell from physics first to limnology, the study of lakes, and then to oceanography.

At Lake Tahoe, Powell spent 15 years studying what causes plankton to grow and die. Thanks to the findings of Powell and his colleagues, treated sewage is no longer discharged into the lake and development has been cut back in areas susceptible to erosion.

Powell and others have also studied the health of San Francisco Bay water, and more recently Powell has been studying plankton in the Gulf of Alaska and the California Current, which sweeps southward along the Pacific Coast.

The current is crucial for marine life survival because larvae must get back to where they were spawned to grow and reproduce themselves.

So sensitive is this homing instinct that larvae from the same parent actually recognize each other, says Powell.

US GLOBEC scientists are now involved in a major research project off the coast of Massachusetts, in the Georges Bank area, where huge cod and haddock stocks have virtually disappeared over the past generation.

From this research, GLOBEC hopes to determine whether global climate change plays a role in the decline of fisheries.

Closer to home, Powell considered what it's like to be back on campus after spending the '60s here as a student.

"Berkeley is more racially mixed, but the students seem less politically active and aware," he says.

"There was a bravado and cockiness then that seemed to diminish during the Reagan years. But the students are certainly more empowered now--they're not terrorized by certain staff and faculty as we were in the early '60s."

Powell is co-teaching a seminar on global climate change and how it relates to land-use change this semester.

He will teach physical oceanography in the spring.


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