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Bodega lab scientist Susan Williams was key voice for conservation, mentor to students worldwide

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Susan Williams was a Bodega Bay marine biologist and professor whose scientific expertise was instrumental in a decadeslong effort to expand federal protections for North Coast marine ecosystems.

She directed the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and served as a key advisor to California lawmakers working to protect coastal waters from oil and gas development. Her research showed how ocean health is connected to the wellbeing of coastal communities and humanity at large, and her ability to communicate simply about complicated science made her an essential adviser, said former U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a Petaluma Democrat who relied on Williams’ counsel in her battles for environmental protections.

“What a loss for our country and our oceans and everybody that has ever met her,” said Woolsey, who served in Congress until 2013. “She was able to put words to science and make it real.”

Willams, 66, was the lone fatality Tuesday in a six-vehicle crash on Lakeville Highway in Petaluma, where her Toyota Prius was struck head-on by Chevrolet Silverado pickup that authorities said crossed over into her lane.

Williams studied seagrass and coral reefs at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, and her research documented the impacts of warming ocean waters and human activity. Her studies covered the impact of invasive species brought into ports and the prevalence of plastic in the sea.

In 2005, she stood alongside Woolsey and Sen. Barbara Boxer when the two lawmakers announced legislation to expand the boundaries of the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries.

The two North Coast national marine sanctuaries were ultimately expanded by the Obama administration in 2015 and now cover 4,581-square miles of ocean from northwest of the San Francisco Bay to Point Arena.

Today, Trump administration plans to sell oil and natural gas development rights to every ocean that touches the United States, including protected waters off Sonoma and Mendocino county coastlines, have led local lawmakers and scientists back into a conflict that many thought was settled in California.

“Not having her here to help us fight the new fight makes it harder,” Woolsey said.

She had also conducted research on the coral reefs of Indonesia, where she worked closely with students and scientists with Hasanuddin University in Makassar.

A mentor to students of all levels, Williams brought ocean researchers into classrooms in Sonoma County schools and created entry-level curricula for undergraduate students to attract them to marine science. She always encouraged women interested in science, said Gary Cherr, director of the Bodega Marine Laboratory and the Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute.

“She mentored women scientists around the world, not only graduate students at Davis,” Cherr said. “She came out of an era where women scientists were second-class scientists. She empowered them to be leaders in the field.”

Tuesday, Williams was driving from her home in Bodega Bay to teach a class for undergraduate students at UC Davis’ main campus. It was a course she developed for non-science majors called “Life in the Sea.”

In her vehicle, she had a cooler carrying seawater and a collection of seagrasses as well as sea anemones and other invertebrates that live in the Sonoma Coast rocky intertidal zone. Grace Ha, a doctoral candidate based at the laboratory who was being advised by Williams, said her mentor played an important role in many students’ education and careers.

“She wanted to give her students a first-hand look at the marine life,” said Ha, 30, who lives in Bodega Bay and does research at the laboratory. “She really cared about making the ocean real for people beyond lectures and power points.”

Williams is survived by her husband, Bruce Nyden.

She earned a Ph.D. in botany and marine biology from the University of Maryland, a master’s degree in biological oceanography from the University of Alaska and a bachelor’s degree of science from the University of Michigan.

Williams taught and conducted research in San Diego and the San Juan Islands in Washington state before she was recruited to lead the Bodega Marine Laboratory in 2000.

During her 10 years as director, Williams pushed for the laboratory to send its scientists into the community to tell of their research, Cherr said. Williams’ programs brought scientists from around the world to the laboratory and sent graduate students into local schools to give children an opportunity to conduct hands-on marine research.

“She said we need to open this lab up on a worldwide level, it is a remarkable place, what great work is being done here,” Cherr said. “She really was successful in that.”

She was also instrumental in acquiring a 42-foot research vessel, the Mussel Point, for the laboratory and formalized a program to have state Fish and Wildlife work in the lab.

In 2010, after a sabbatical, Williams was ready to turn her efforts back to research and teaching and handed the directorship to Cherr. She continued her studies and mentoring students at the laboratory.

“She was among the most renowned marine ecologists in the U.S. and the world,” Cherr said. “She was somebody who has been tremendously impactful in terms of research — restoring habitats in degraded environments — and impacting state and national policy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.