The one-time doctoral student returns to the Narragansett Bay Campus.
By Ellen Liberman
According to family lore, Paula Bontempi was five when she announced that she was going to study the ocean. Her father was pleased; it seemed a fitting tribute to the generations of Bontempi men who fished the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Rimini. Her mother was alarmed; the ocean had taken sufficient numbers of Bontempi men to drive the family’s immigration to America, in search of a less dangerous profession.
It is the rare kindergartener who declares a career. Rarer still is the individual who holds steadfast to a single passion for a lifetime. And now, as dean of the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, Paula Bontempi joins a team of equally committed ocean investigators, eager to help them shape the institution’s future, to expand its footprint, and deepen the influence of its science.
“Dean Bontempi is a strategic thinker with extensive personnel and program management and implementation experience in applied science, technology development, and advancement of both the deep sea and the blue economy,” says Donald DeHayes, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs “Her proven track-record as a leader and accomplished scientist will help catalyze the extraordinary talent at GSO to create a new era of growth and distinction.”
She comes just as the Narragansett Bay campus embarks on a major capital improvement campaign to build an ocean technology center, a marine operations building, and a large pier in anticipation of the 2023 arrival of a new research vessel. But, her years in science management have taught her to think deeply about GSO’s human capital.
Dean Bontempi is a strategic thinker with extensive personnel and program management and implementation experience in applied science, technology development, and advancement of both the deep sea and the blue economy.Donald DeHayes, URI Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
“My goal for first couple of months has been to sit back, watch, learn and listen. I just came on board, and I don’t want to start changing things without understanding what’s working,” she says. “I want people to start thinking about where they want to be in the next year, or five years, ten years, 30 years and start laying out [a strategic plan] for that. Embedded in that is not only the ocean exploration, discovery and research piece, but also more integrated science—as the Center for Coastal Resources does in applications, in decision support, in management, in policy—and absolutely interface it with economics.”
At the same time, Bontempi intends to make inclusion, equity and diversity a centerpiece of her tenure. She has not forgotten what it felt like as one of the few women in a room full of high-level male staffers, 20 year her senior: “it was a lot a to be at that disadvantage,” she says. “It was sobering.”
An alum of GSO, Bontempi’s return is a homecoming. It’s where she developed her research specialty, met her husband and thrived in a community of friends so close they call themselves “the family.” It’s also of a piece with a life that has looped around science in academic and governmental settings.
Bontempi grew up the youngest of Robert and Lucy Bontempi’s three children in Upper Saddle River, a farm town in Bergen County, New Jersey. Her evolution as an ocean scientist began in those waters flowing south to the Passaic River before draining into Newark Bay on their way to the Atlantic. The extended family spent much of its recreational and work time sailing and fishing. Despite the best efforts of her great grandparents, in America, the Bontempis returned to commercial fishing, the work they knew best.
As a young girl, she was thrilled by the ocean’s depths. Bontempi recalls her obsession with Robert Ballard’s 1977 discovery of a biosphere emanating from hydrothermal vents in the Pacific’s Galápagos rift. But, eventually, her attention drifted upward. At Boston College, she interned at the New England Aquarium, analyzing trace metals in mussels living in Boston Harbor. As an oceanography graduate student at Texas A&M University, she studied phytoplankton taxonomy and biogeography in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers.
In 1996, she came to GSO, fresh off a stint as a research associate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Institute for Marine Sciences, located at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. While studying for her Ph.D under professor emeritus Jim Yoder, Bontempi became intrigued by the idea of studying the ocean from the exosphere. Ocean color remote sensing—using satellites to measure shifts in the mass and productivity of phytoplankton as they photosynthesize, changing the chlorophyll concentration of their pigment and the color of the sea surface—was then a nascent field. Bontempi says she was attracted to the improbability of its quantitative success.
“I thought the whole thing was complete BS,” she says. “I could barely tell what was going on in the water using a microscope. How can they do it from space?”
Bontempi learned how to do it from space, sandwiching her studies at GSO with summer fellowships at NASA and NATO, where she developed her competence in processing and analyzing the data.
After graduation, she returned to the University of Southern Mississippi in January 2001 as an Assistant Professor, in this tenure-track position, she continued her ocean color remote sensing research.
But in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Bontempi keenly felt the distance between her work in Mississippi and her family and friends up north. Her then-beau, Whitley Saumweber was still a graduate student at GSO, and they began to plan for a life together in the same place. Washington D.C., an epicenter of governmental science agencies and NGOs, seemed to provide the most opportunities. In 2003, she returned to NASA, stationed at headquarters as program manager, working with ocean biology and biogeochemistry scientists on government-funded projects. She was only 32—a little young for the first permanent occupant of what had been a rotating position for well-established scientists, says Jack Kaye, then-manager of NASA’s Earth Science Research Program. But, he thought her well-trained, cognizant of science funding from a proposer’s perspective, and someone who would grow into the job.
By all accounts, Bontempi distinguished herself as a manager and a representative of the agency. Yoder, for example, lauded her tenure on the International Ocean Color Coordinating Group, a 24-year-old organization of experts from national space agencies and the academic research community, promoting and investigating ocean-color technology and its applications. A long-time member, Yoder says Bontempi was “a major force,” who drove the agenda, even though she was not the chair, earning the respect and affection of its members—including those from countries not keen on U.S. dominance or unaccustomed to women in upper management.
“It was a delicate balance, but she pulled it off,” he says. “It was impressive.”
It is hard to condense the superlatives her former colleagues use to describe her: cool in the hot seat at a scientific conference; a “zealous” note-taker, who never seemed to actually need them; a fan of the pre-meeting, so everyone came to the main meeting ready to go; a manager with a firm grasp on a diverse research portfolio; a fluid translator of science between disciplines; and a comrade— as much fun to share an after-dinner cocktail as a project. They uniformly describe a hard worker, a rigorous scientist, and a collaborative and creative leader with a laser focus on moving projects forward.
Lisa Clough, a section head for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, recalls one inter-agency meeting in which Bontempi used a consensus-building technique to pick up the lumbering pace of science in the federal government. Instead of the typical two days of presentations and group discussions, but no product, Paula, as one of the facilitators, guided her colleagues to a first draft of a White Paper by the meeting’s end.
“She is a breath of fresh air,” Clough says. Paula’s approach was “let’s use some techniques from the business world of what constitutes an effective meeting instead of drawing on what science has always done.”
Jeremy Werdell, a NASA colleague, and PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) scientist, appreciated her as a mentor.
“Paula built this program and a lot of her success was because she was so engaged in her community being successful. She always listened, always tried to help you find solutions,” he says. “I haven’t met anybody who doesn’t appreciate everything she has done for us. She grew a lot of us up, and that must have been difficult.”
Kaye, now Associate Director for Research of NASA’s Earth Science Division, sums it up: “She’s the consummate team player—being a leader when leading is needed, a steward when stewardship is needed,and following when following is needed. But she excelled at building a cohesive community,” he says. “She was one of my best program managers at talking me out of extra money. Paula could paint a compelling picture of what the science could accomplish.”
Yoder, himself a former interim GSO dean and NASA scientist, expects Bontempi will boost the institution’s research mission in a variety of ways, identifying the pathways for GSO researchers seeking federal funding, and using her communications skills to weave GSO into state and federal marine policy.
“I’m so excited for GSO,” Catalina Martinez, a GSO-based scientist with NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research, “Out of excellent applicants who fit the usual mold, she was a huge outlier. That means she will bring something completely different to their journey. She’s coming from enormity of her leadership position at NASA, managing billion-dollar budgets, huge projects with global implications. Now she gets to take all of that—the cultural and political capital, the network, the scholarships, the wisdom—to bear on an institution that is so special.”
Bontempi credits dinner-time debates with Saumweber, who, among other positions, worked as President Obama’s Director for Ocean and Coastal Policy in the White House Council on Environmental Quality, with developing her appreciation for the critical marriage of science and policy.
“As an almost two-decades NASA person, you don’t have to convince me about the importance of exploration. But we can no longer ignore the tie to policy and economics. We have to be smart.” But, she says, that will create “opportunities for technological, engineering and other innovations. What I love about GSO is that it has the capability to pull all of those pieces together.”
Her friends describe her as warm, welcoming and witty. (One jokes, “Paula’s mediocre superpower is that she knows the words to every bad ’80s song.”) And, says Clough, Bontempi always brought her “authentic self” to the job. She presented herself as professionally confident, Clough says, but “‘I’m also a mom and a wife. This is my whole self.’ We in the government sciences have increased the number of women within the field, but honestly, the role model aspect is very important.”
Ultimately, Bontempi says, it was one of reasons she returned to GSO. Friends had sent her URI job vacancy notices before, but she loved her job and co-workers at NASA. She wasn’t sure she was ready to leave. But two unexpected letters from colleagues persuaded her it was a good move, and her older sister Lisa reminded her: “‘You’ve talked about coming back and helping women and other under-represented groups who didn’t have the opportunities you did. Why would you wait until you are in your 60s? You can still identify with younger generations.’ And, she’s right.”
Paula Bontempi at the half-century mark, is GSO’s sixth dean and the second woman to lead this world-renowned institution. She did not accept the mantle lightly.
“I felt like the day they put my son in my arms,” she says. “I hope I don’t mess this up.”
Her advocates don’t believe this is even remotely possible: Paula Bontempi will do what she has always done—gather the team together and push through the next frontier of ocean science.