On October 1, 2020, Peter de Menocal assumed the role of President & Director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the 11th person to hold that title since the Institution was founded in 1930. In a wide-ranging conversation, we meet the man and the scientist—and got a glimpse of what WHOI’s future may hold under his leadership.

Peter de Menocal | October 29, 2020 | Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Oceanus: Welcome to WHOI!

De Menocal: Thank you very much.

Oceanus:  If you don’t mind, let’s start at the beginning: Where did you grow up, and what aspects of your childhood eventually led you to a career as a marine geologist and climate scientist?

De Menocal: I grew up in Rye, New York, in what was then a small, quiet suburb just north of New York City. I have always been drawn to the ocean, even from childhood. My family and I would visit my grandparents who had retired and moved to Nantucket in 1945, when it really was the remote and eponymous “far-away island.” I remember asking endless questions about the sea and marveling at its immensity and power. But it would be many years before I realized that I could turn my curiosity about the ocean into a career.

Funny enough, my professional connection to the sea began at WHOI. At the time, I was a clueless but optimistic studio-art and math major at St. Lawrence University in far upstate New York, near the Canadian border. On a crisp day in the spring of 1979, I hitchhiked south to visit a friend on Cape Cod. My last ride dropped me off in front of the Quissett campus, where stern signs saying “Secure Area: No Trespassing” beckoned me to investigate.

I reached the Clark Building, walked inside, and was stunned by what I saw: gleaming labs, computer centers, and gaggles of students everywhere. A big bear-paw of a hand grabbed my shoulder and asked in a booming voice, “Son, can I help you?” The hand and voice belonged—not to a security guard, as I first thought—but to famed marine geologist Charley Hollister. He pulled me into his office, and I spent the next several hours listening to his tales of going to sea, traveling the world, building scientific instruments, and conducting oceanographic research. I was riveted. When I walked out of Clark that day, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Originally published by WHOI. Read the full interview here