Geological survey chief retiring after 25 years of beach science
BY JOHN ROBBINS Post-Tribune correspondent February 26, 2014 11:02PM
Updated: March 28, 2014 7:00AM
After 25 years of working in beach science for a variety of government agencies, Richard Whitman looks back with satisfaction.
“It’s a fun job, the best job anyone could imagine,” said Whitman, chief of the United States Geological Survey Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station in Porter, reflecting on his upcoming retirement on Feb. 28.
When that career started, Whitman was an associate professor of biology at Indiana University Northwest. He took a leave of absence during what would be his final two years in that post, beginning in 1989, when he was named chief scientist for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
That position was spun off to a new agency, the National Biological Survey, before becoming part of the USGS, where he has served as station chief for 20 years.
The agencies he’s worked for have changed, but for the most part, his job has not.
“I never left my desk,” Whitman said. “My mission remained the same.”
Whitman’s mission was to assemble a staff to conduct what would become groundbreaking research that ultimately challenged the accepted understanding of the conditions where certain bacteria could live. He and his staff established a worldwide reputation for scientific studies of beach ecology.
Given that record, he has mixed emotions about retirement. What keeps him going, he said, is, “getting up in the morning and not knowing what discoveries lay ahead.”
Whitman’s studies on a tiny bacteria, E. coli, led to the discovery that E. coli was found not just in human and animal digestive tracts but was naturally occurring in the soil, forest floor litter and in the sand.
The bacteria is associated with pollution from sewage discharges that can close beaches. It has even been found in the bell of the pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant found in the National Lakeshore’s Pinhook Bog, according to Whitman.
“In a way I’ve been a nemesis of the EPA,” he said of his findings that E. coli cannot be solely related to human factors.
Whitman said he became interested in E. coli when he and former National Lakeshore superintendent Dale Engquist were discussing the source of the bacteria in Derby Ditch, a creek in Beverly Shores that drains into Lake Michigan.
“What started off as a simple project has exploded into a huge research area over the last 15 years. Now it’s a discipline by itself,” said USGS research microbiologist Murulee Byappanahalli about Whitman’s research.
Whitman won’t call himself the founder of a “beach science” as a new field of study but he does take credit for coining the term.
Beach science to Whitman is the study of beaches as an entire ecosystem and not just individual components.
To further the study of beaches, Whitman founded the Great Lakes Beach Association, which now has close to 1,100 members worldwide.
Meredith Nevers, an aquatic biologist for the USGS, calls the group a source for “collaboration and interaction between science, policy and beach management.”
Whitman is “known as the father of beaches around the Great Lakes,” she added.
Whitman said the research station has moved beyond testing for harmful levels of E. coli, doing “more exotic stuff.”
Predictive real-time modeling of conditions that can be used to better assess when a beach should be closed is one example of what’s being studied, in research funded in part by Chicago and carried out by Nevers.
New research needs new technology the research station doesn’t have space for, so among Whitman’s last duties has been planning a move later this year to a new facility with lots of room for expansion.
The new spot will be the National Lakeshore’s old visitor’s center at U.S. 12 and Kemil Road, close to Beverly Shores and Derby Ditch, where Whitman began his E. coli research long ago.
“He’s been a great partner and mentor,” Nevers said. “It’s a loss to us, Northwest Indiana and the USGS.”
While Whitman will retire from government service, he expects to keep busy as adjunct faculty at Indiana University Northwest and Purdue North Central and visiting professor at Michigan State University, where he will continue his research.
And, though retired, he expects to occupy a new desk, at last, at the new research station facility.
“The creative process is the most rewarding for us. I will come back for that. The beauty is the creativity,” said Whitman, and you really don’t retire from that.