Strength of Rutgers-UMDNJ Wetlands Research Drawn from Collaboration, Professional and Personal
Judith and Peddrick Weis worked together from separate labs to examine how marine life was influenced by environmental toxicology.
Consider the humble mummichogs, tiny fish sometimes called mud minnows. Their name doesn’t inspire poetry, but their spirit should. Mummichogs, a type of killifish, are exceptionally hardy. They survive in severely polluted northern New Jersey waters such as the salt marshes of the Hackensack Meadowlands and other estuaries along the Atlantic coast.
Judith S. Weis, professor emerita in the Department of Biological Sciences, Rutgers-Newark, and Peddrick Weis, a former professor (now adjunct) of radiology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-New Jersey Medical School, began studying mummichogs in the 1970s.
The two scientists, who are married, worked collaboratively from their laboratories at Rutgers and UMDNJ to examine how marine life (her area of expertise) was influenced by environmental toxicology (his analytical specialty).
“I had more focus on ecology and Pete had more focus on cellular and biochemical techniques,” says Judith Weis. “By combining these two together, we could get a bigger picture of what is actually going on when an organism is affected by pollutants.”
Peddrick, or Pete, calls himself “the odd duck” at his institution due to the focus of their collaborative research. “We were probably the only medical school in the country that had an outboard motorboat,” he says.
The Weises’ work showed how the resilient mummichogs quickly evolved to adapt to contaminated waters. That led to a more comprehensive understanding of how pollution changes life for several marshland organisms, including fiddler crabs and grass shrimp, and what enables certain species to endure conditions that wipe out others.
Over the years, the Weises have collaborated on many research projects – most centered in the waters of the upper New Jersey marshlands. They have co-authored about 100 refereed papers and book chapters in addition to individual publications.
Not surprisingly, the two met in a laboratory near the water. Judith Weis was working on a research project at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Pete Weis took a summer lab assistant job there just after his first year of dental school. He went on to get his dental degree, but chose research over practicing dentistry. Judith Weis joined Rutgers-Newark in 1967 as an assistant professor of biology and Pete Weis became a UMDNJ anatomy professor (now included in the radiology department).
Inspired by the Earth Day movement in the early 1970s, each became more interested in the environmental impact of contaminants. Their collaborative research endeavors, spanning two institutions, grew from there.
“When we looked at the effect of a contaminated environment, Judy would look at the ecological or behavioral effect. I would be collecting specimens and taking them back to the lab for microscopic or chemical analysis,” says Pete Weis. “We each had our contributions to a multidisciplinary study.”
Being a couple and having similar scientific interests didn’t assure that working together would be easy.
“The first summer we were collaborators, it was a little rocky, just like the first six months we were married. You were getting used to another person’s style,” Judith Weis says. “There was friction, but we worked through it.”
Pete agrees. “We each can be stubborn in our own ways,” he says. They spent several sabbaticals doing joint research. “That meant working together almost 24/7 for six to nine months at a time – and we’re still married,” Pete Weis adds, noting they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this year.
Because of his longstanding working relationship with Rutgers, Pete Weis was an early proponent of integrating the two institutions. The merger of UMDNJ and Rutgers offers “more possibilities for joint efforts at the research level and graduate school level,” he says.
Both scientists agree that integration also will simplify and reduce some administrative costs of research. By merging into one institution, overhead costs for collaborative research will be reduced.
Pete Weis still conducts some research, including work with Rutgers. Judith Weis remains highly involved in environmental advisory groups such as the science advisory board of the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Science and Technical Advisory Committee of the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Estuary Program.
She also writes marine natural history books. Her latest, Walking Sideways: The Remarkable World of Crabs (Cornell University Press), was published this month [Nov. 2012]. Rutgers University Press published her Do Fish Sleep? (2011) and Salt Marshes: A Natural and Unnatural History (2009), which she co-wrote with Carol Butler.