Nobel Conference 48 Presenter Profile: Barbara Block

Posted on July 2nd, 2012 by

Dr. Barbara Block

Top researchers in biogeochemistry, oceanography, deep-sea biology, molecular genetics, and coral ecology are coming together on Oct. 2-3, 2012, for “Our Global Ocean,” the 48th annual Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College. They will meet to discuss the marine realm: what we know, what we don’t know, and how we humans rely upon healthy vibrant seas.

Here is an introduction to Nobel Conference 48 presenter Barbara Block, who will speak at this year’s Nobel Conference at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 2.

Most people know from watching shows like Wild Kingdom on Animal Planet that scientists study large animals like giraffes and elephants in order to develop strategies to help maintain healthy populations of these animals. But, few of us know that scientists like Barbara Block study how the lions and tigers of the sea — tuna and sharks — survive migrating through cold oceans.

She describes tuna as the athletes of the sea and if given the choice would take a tuna’s heart over any other animal. Block works out of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, where she and her colleagues run the Tuna Research and Conservation Center, part of the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) program.

They use novel electronic tags to track large predator fish like tuna, billfish, and sharks, as they travel across the ocean. She also studies the physiology of these creatures, how and why at a molecular level muscle makes heat, in an effort to better understand how they no only survive in the cold ocean, but thrive.

Her group combines these data with tracking data and genetic analyses in order to develop population and ecological models. Their goal is to help us understand these fishes’ roles in the ocean ecosystem and to learn how to better manage them as a resource.

Professor Block got excited about the oceans when, as an undergraduate, she took a class in oceanography. So, as a senior, she signed up for a semester at sea with the Sea Education Association. After earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont, she went on to Duke University for graduate work in zoology, earning her Ph.D.

She began her teaching career at the University of Chicago while she was also a member of the research staff of the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution. It was there that she got her passion for tuna and other warm-blooded fish from the father of tuna biology, Dr. Francis Carey.

Since 1993, Block has been the Protho Professor of Marine Science at Stanford University in California. She founded the Tuna Research and Conservation Center in conjunction with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a unique facility that permits physiological research on tunas. The Block lab is the only lab in the United States that keeps captive tuna for study. They also engage in research at sea and employ wildlife telemetry and molecular genetics to study the short- and long-term movements and behavior of tuna and billfishes.

These fish are highly exploited in international fisheries, and understanding their biology, population structure, and selective advantage of endothermy (warm bloodedness) is necessary to develop effective management strategies.

Block spends about a third of her time at sea and usually takes undergraduate students along to help with the work. Not only do they get to see how two-thirds of our planet functions, she says, but they also have an opportunity to develop the passion that has driven her career. Electronic instrumentation allows them to track the movements of tagged fish in hear real time, by sending data to the researchers through acoustic receives and satellites.

The TOPP website makes these data available to researcher and the public alike. Block’s group is trying to build the largest world heritage sites by learning where the animals are so they can protect the remaining populations as the oceans change in the coming years. To that end, it is important to understand the relationship between ocean and atmosphere. She says that we must think integratively across disciplines, from planetary science to ocean biology, in order to solve the difficult challenges of the future.

Dr. Block loves working with wild animals — although she says that she needs to stay focused when she does so. Last summer she was working with white sharks for the first time in a while, using a seal decoy with small pieces of whale meat to lure a shark in close to the boat for tagging purposes. She was lucky that when the shark lunged for the decoy, which was very close to her hand, that she was able to react quickly and wasn’t injured. Barbara also loves Labrador retrievers, biking, swimming, diving, and snow skiing.

For more information about the 48th Nobel Conference, go online to


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