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Nancy Rabalais

UU marine ecologist wins 'genius grant'

MacArthur Foundation recognizes Nancy Rabalais for work in Gulf Coast dead zones.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
Spring 2013 2.15.13

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Marine ecologist Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, has been an awarded a $500,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Rabalais, a member of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, La., received the award, often called a “genius grant,” for her ongoing work studying hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Also known as “dead zones,” hypoxic zones in the Gulf have very low oxygen levels and cannot support aquatic life. They have proliferated in the waters off Louisiana as fertilizers from farms along the Mississippi River have flowed into the Gulf.

The fellowship brings with it an unrestricted prize of $500,000 over a five-year period. Rabalais said she plans to use the money to fund continued research. The timing of the prize is fortuitous for her, as federal budget cuts to research funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been severe. “We just took a 43 percent cut for this fiscal year,” Rabalais said. “This is important for funding equipment, student support, and travel,” said Rabalais, who spoke with UU World via telephone on a break from a meeting with an National Resource Council committee studying the effects of the BP oil spill on Gulf ecosystems.

The award came as a complete surprise to Rabalais. “I was just flabbergasted,” she said. “I never thought this would be anything that would happen to me.”

She received a call from the MacArthur Foundation in mid-September while she was in Mexico at a meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Large Marine Ecosystem Project, a joint U.S.-Mexico partnership concerned with the health of the Gulf. The caller asked her if she was alone. She stepped outside the meeting and was stunned to hear that she had won.

For several weeks, Rabalais could share the news of her award with only one person, according to the fellowship’s rules. She told her husband, Eugene Turner, who is also a colleague. A professor at Louisiana State University, Turner studies marsh ecology and restoration.

Along with Turner, Rabalais has attended the Baton Rouge church for 20 years. She recalled first attending to hear a talk given by Sister Helen Prejean about capital punishment and coming back a second time to attend a winter solstice service. Her daughter grew up in the church’s religious education program, in which Rabalais taught for 10 years.

There is a connection between her professional work and her identity as a Unitarian Universalist, Rabalais said. She respects all living beings, humans, and the environment, and values all of the UU Principles, she said. “I now know that I had been a UU for many years, at least since high school. I just did not know it or have an avenue for it,” she said. “I am lucky to have found the UU congregation in Baton Rouge.”

When Rabalais returns for the Baton Rouge congregation’s annual water communion ceremony, she adds an offering from her work. “I bring water from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where the low oxygen occurs, to our water ceremony with a rededication of my efforts to improve water quality,” she said.

The Baton Rouge newspaper, The Advocate, recognized Rabalais in an editorial on October 5. “We hope that Rabalais’ honor will help throw light on the continuing ecological challenges for the Gulf Coast region, which should be a subject of national and, indeed, international concern,” the editorial said.

The Rev. Steve Crump, senior minister of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, led the congregation in congratulating Rabalais at a Sunday morning service. Crump asked whether there were moments in her career when she did not feel like a genius. She assured the congregation there were many, such as a recent incident when she was injured on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 2011, Rabalais received a $100,000 grant from the Heinz Family Foundation, which noted her “courage in advocating for cleaner, healthier waters.”


A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of UU World (“Marine ecologist wins ‘genius grant,’” pages 6–7). This article has been updated since its original publication on October 15, 2012. More information about her work, including a video prepared by the MacArthur Foundation, is available on the foundation’s website. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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