Nobel Conference 48 Profile of William Fitzgerald

Posted on June 27th, 2012 by

Have you ever paused as you made a tuna sandwich and wondered just what went on in that fish’s life? To grow large enough to be caught, the tuna must have eaten a lot of food—smaller ocean creatures—that had, in turn, been eating and growing in the ocean for their whole lives. If “you are what you eat,” then that tuna had accumulated some of the chemical elements present in the ocean. Unfortunately, that includes the toxic metal mercury.

Methylmercury, one chemical form of mercury, is poisonous to life and may cause neurological and developmental damage and even death. Bill Fitzgerald has dedicated his career to understanding how mercury “cycles” through the environment, for example moving from rocks to the atmosphere to the ocean, and ultimately into living organisms. Bill has helped demonstrate that mercury pollution around the world has substantially increased since 1850 due to human activities like fossil fuel combustion, gold mining, and waste disposal. Once mercury is released into the air, atmospheric currents quickly spread it far and wide. However, the chemical reactions that lead to fish being dangerously contaminated are complex and are being investigated by Bill and others, including researchers studying mercury in northern Minnesota’s streams and lakes. Bill’s work reminds us that what might appear to be local pollution problems—a power plant here, a garbage incinerator there—may actually have direct negative impacts to other places, including to our global ocean.

Bill studied at Boston College and the College of the Holy Cross, then received his Ph.D. jointly from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served his entire career at the University of Connecticut, where he pioneered methods to better measure mercury in the environment and received nearly continuous funding from the National Science Foundation to support his work. Bill is now a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Marine Sciences at UConn, and in the fall of 2012 will be in residence as the Rydell Professor at Gustavus Adolphus College. The Rydell Professorship at Gustavus is a scholar-in-residence program designed to bring Nobel laureates, Nobel Conference lecturers, and similarly distinguished scholars to campus as catalysts for enhancing learning and teaching. It was established in 1995 by Drs. Robert E. and Susan T. Rydell of Minnetonka, Minn., to give students the opportunity to learn from and interact with leading scholars. During his residency, Bill will assist the Nobel Conference Committee in developing previews of the conference to be held in the Twin Cities and will also team-teach a seminar on oceanography for advanced science students with some members of the Nobel Conference committee.


One Comment

  1. Catherine J. Walbridge (Jenny) says:

    I would like to email Bill Fitzgerald as I am considering attending the Nobel Conference and want to send him my paper on mercury pollution, assuming he would be interested in taking a look at it, before the conference. Thank you!

    C. Jenny Walbridge,