Acceptance Speech – Bern, 13.11.2015 (video + text)


David Karl

2015 Balzan Prize for Oceanography

For his fundamental contributions to the understanding of the role and immense importance of microorganisms in the ocean, and of how microorganisms and phytoplankton control the oceanic carbon, nitrogen, and iron cycles, work that has yielded significant insights into global change

Federal Councillor,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is with deep gratitude to the Balzan Foundation and the Balzan Prize Committee that I accept this prestigious and generous award.

I am an oceanographer and my natural laboratory – the vast global ocean– covers more than 70% of Earth’s surface. I am thrilled to represent the discipline of Oceanography, and humbled to stand on the shoulders of Dr. Roger Revelle, the 1986 recipient of the Balzan Prize for Oceanography.

My field research has taken me around the world, including 23 expeditions to Antarctica. As Dr. Revelle once proclaimed “Being at the same time a sailor and a scientist seems almost too good to be true” – my exact feeling! Much of the past four decades of my life has been devoted to investigating the role that marine microorganisms play in sustaining planetary habitability, and the susceptibility of marine microbial communities to human-induced climate change.

Marine microorganisms are numerous and ubiquitous, and exhibit enormous genetic and metabolic diversity. They were the first life forms on Earth, dating back nearly 4 billion years, and their presence changed the chemistry of the planet and allowed the evolution of higher life forms, including humans. The modern discipline of Oceanography can be traced back to the 19th-century world-wide voyage of the HMS Challenger. By comparison, the field of Microbial Oceanography is just getting started, ignited in part by the genomics revolution, novel observational tools and enhanced access to the sea.

Ironically, human beings are the ones who are now altering Earth’s climate with major impacts on marine ecosystems. The future ocean will be warmer, more acidic and less favorable for the proliferation of certain life-sustaining marine microbes. Our research is beginning to uncover the structure and function of microorganisms in the sea, and the inextricable linkages to habitat variability and human activities. This is a major challenge not only for science, but also for all of society.

Science is a team sport, and I have one of the best teams ever assembled to address the contemporary challenges of the sea. By building transdisciplinary collaborations among scientists, engineers and educators, we have created unique opportunities for discovery-based science and knowledge transfer. We need more scientists in a complex, changing world. There is also an urgent need to promote a greater public understanding of science and to strengthen global policies to protect and conserve our limited natural resources. In the future, the ocean will become an increasingly important source of food, energy and natural resources as the demands of a burgeoning human population outpace and exhaust the land-based supplies. The Balzan Prize will enable me to support the research of several early career scientists, including post-doctoral scholars from Spain and Italy who may become leaders of the next generation of oceanographers. Discoveries await. The future is today.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge many mentors and collaborators from around the world who have made my life in science so enjoyable and rewarding. My parents instilled in me a great sense of humanity, humility and social responsibility. My father, Roland, who served as a field medic in the US 9th Infantry Division, helped to end fascism in Italy and later participated in the allied invasion at Normandy. My siblings, Beverly and Tom, continue to be inspirational role models. Tom, a cardiac surgeon, is here with us today. My beloved partner, Tanya, provides daily companionship and support.

Thanks to all, once again, for this tremendous honor.

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Fondazione Internazionale Premio Balzan