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For Phil Dustan ’75, Stony Brook Was the Gateway to the World

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Phil Dustan '75 Wins Emmy for Netflix Documentary Chasing Coral
Phil Dustan ’75 Wins Emmy for Netflix Documentary Chasing Coral

On Sunday, September 22, the television industry celebrated its greatest achievers at the Emmy Awards. 

One year ago, Phil Dustan ’75 was among them.

Dustan, a professor of biology at the College of Charleston, was a scientific advisor on the Netflix documentary Chasing Coral, which was named Outstanding Nature Documentary at the 39th News and Documentary Emmy Awards. The award capped off a staggering list of laurels for the film, including a Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award and the US Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

For Dustan, the Emmy adds to a career that’s seen him work in ecosystems around the world, collaborate with the likes of Jacques Cousteau, and most recently, respond to the effects of Hurricane Dorian on his home community in South Carolina. Through it all, though, his work always comes back to the fundamental principles he studied in the Department of Ecology and Evolution in Stony Brook’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Like most people in Charleston right now, you’re recovering from the effects of Hurricane Dorian. How has that affected your work at the College of Charleston?

One of the major problems we have along the entire East Coast is the new form of developments, which are called Planned Unit Developments, or PUDs, when they build lots of houses close together. When they do this, they alter the landscape so that the surface becomes more impervious; water doesn’t soak in, and the land loses its water balance. Developments are more like parking lots than they are like forests, so in areas of low-lying land, where we have rainfall and storm surge, what we’ve seen is an increase in flooding, and a large part of that increase in flooding is driven by developments that are relatively impervious, and infilled so that they’re higher than surrounding neighborhoods. 

Before, we were really interested in how development and urbanization affected the ecology of the salt marsh and the ecology of the water, because when a watershed becomes about 10 to 15 percent impervious, we begin to see a degradation in the life in the salt marsh. That was very concerning to us about 20 years ago, and now we’re concerned about development flooding out our homes and our lives, so that becomes much more of an issue.

In the area where I live, we’ve mapped it in detail, and we know the flow of water based on topography, and now we can put instruments at strategic drainage canals and see where the bulk of the water is coming from. When Dorian comes through, it’s like a pulse chase experiment: we get about six inches of rain, and then it’s gone. We didn’t get any flooding because the storm went by at low tide, and then at the next high tide, the winds were such that it actually pulled the water out of the estuary environment. We actually had a lower tide than usual rather than a super-high flood tide. So, all we’re looking at is the impact of the water, and the watershed that has the most development of these brand new PUDs had this huge bolus of water that came down, and it’s a picture-perfect example of what I’m talking about. So, we have to take these opportunities when we get them. That information is being used to interact with the mayor and the development policies of the city of Charleston, which have been “Build as much wherever it can be built, as fast as possible.” Those building practices are now becoming destructive. Myself and a few colleagues are the only voice of reason that can come at these people with scientific information. We now have a Facebook page you can go check, the Lowcountry Flooded States of America. We post things for people to see and create political awareness about what’s happening in Charleston, and push toward banning this policy of “fill and build,” and to get FEMA and other federal agencies to take a closer look at what’s happened in Charleston.

So Charleston itself has become a big part of your work. What was the path that led you from Stony Brook to Charleston?

When I was at Stony Brook as a graduate student, I was working in Jamaica and I went diving with Ian McIntyre from the Smithsonian. Ian ran out of air at 100 feet, so I “buddy breathed” him up to the surface, and we became friends. When I got back to Stony Brook a couple of months later, he sent me a letter and asked me for all my methods; I had developed a way of staining corals in situ to get data on how they grow on the reef, and not how they grow in a lab. I went to my professor, Larry Slobodkin, and I asked him about this. I said, “The Smithsonian, they want my methods, and with all the power of the Smithsonian, they’re going to scoop me.” He said, “Remember: one person makes dogma and two people make science.”

So, I sent Ian my methods, and when I was looking for a job, he found me my first job in Florida. That was working for the Smithsonian in the Florida Keys. From there, I went to Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and I was there for four years. I became a research biologist there, not only working on corals, but then I got involved in Antarctic research and I got involved with bio-optics, the measurement of light in the sea, and using that to understand the biology of the sea. I got involved with a group of people who were doing the fundamental work for measurement of chlorophyll from satellites. 

Later on, I was looking for a job, and a friend of mine called me up and told me there might be a job in Charleston. I came here and interviewed, and I liked it because it reminded me of Jamaica. It reminded me a little bit of the Florida Keys. I started working here, and I kept a lot of my international colleagues; I was invited to be principal scientist on [Jacques Cousteau’s] Calypso when she went up the Amazon the following year, and then later, I was invited on a Russian expedition in the Seychelles. Charleston became a very interesting base, and it was possible, because it was small enough, to have a voice, and do positive things.

And it seems like you get to work in a lot of different areas, from the Antarctic to the Amazon, the Seychelles, the Florida Keys and your work with coral reefs…

Dustan has had a career that's seen him work in ecosystems all around the world, collaborate with the likes of Jacques Cousteau, and most recently, respond to the effects of Hurricane Dorian.
Dustan has had a career that’s seen him work in ecosystems all around the world, collaborate with the likes of Jacques Cousteau, and most recently, respond to the effects of Hurricane Dorian.

I’ve been all over the world, but it always comes back to the fundamentals of ecology and evolution that I got from Stony Brook. Larry Slobodkin was a genius. He was a really good scientist and also a Talmud scholar. His mentor in graduate school was G. Evelyn Hutchinson, the father of modern evolutionary ecology, so when Larry came to Stony Brook from Michigan in the mid-60s, he founded the Department of Ecology and Evolution as the first of its kind in the world. And so, realizing how those two disciplines interact with each other, and the fundamentals of that, gives you a perspective to work in any ecosystem. When I went to Scripps, I became an oceanographer as well, because we had the opportunity to go to sea. They had quarterly cruises, and the grad students would go out and sometimes the major investigators would go out, but after a while everybody got sick of going out to sea. So, if they found someone who liked going out to sea, they would make sure you could go. I would do all these odd jobs for different professors, and as a result, I picked up a lot of oceanography without classically studying it. It was sort of second nature to combine the oceanography and my love of the sea with optics and ecology and evolution. 

I first heard the words “global ecology” when I was at Scripps. I was at a meeting up in northern California with Gerry Soffen, who was the project manager for the Viking probes that went to Mars to look for life. He had worked with James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia Theory. When Gerry started talking about global ecology, I instantly understood what he was talking about, because at Stony Brook, we were talking about global issues, like “the Earth is green; therefore, herbivores are not food-limited. There’s excess plant material; that means it’s not all eaten. If the herbivores were food-limited, it would be gone, but that doesn’t happen, so what regulates the animal population?” We’d grapple with questions like that, and those were Slobodkin-type global ecological issues. 

The training I got from Stony Brook has really put me in good stead. Stony Brook was so far ahead of its time, and at that time, it was just a magical place to be as a student, because you saw these great minds jumping around and arguing and fighting scientifically, and then they were best friends once you got out of that arena. It was really a fascinating place, and I’ve never been at an institute where that magic was duplicated again.

So, with all the different areas where you’ve worked and all the different things you study, is there such a thing as a “typical day” for you?

My typical day is to get up at 5:00, take my ancient dog for a walk, and then I do some yoga and I think about what I’m going to do. If I have class, I leave the house at 7:00, and if I don’t, I start working on my projects, and there are usually three or four main projects in my life at a time. They really all tie together through the fundamentals of ecology, and they’re separated geographically, but they’re really in large part the impact of humans on the planet at different scales.

When I worked at the Smithsonian out of graduate school, the mandate was, “Begin some long-term studies in the Florida Keys to look at human impacts on reefs,” and at that time, I thought it was a joke. I can remember talking with Cousteau and telling him, “Reefs are so vast, they’re never going to change. They can stand up to hurricanes; humans aren’t going to hurt them.” He said, “No, no, no. In the Red Sea, if you go around Jeddah, right around the mouth of the harbor, you’ll see the impact of humans on reefs, and it’s not until you get away from humans that you see real reefs.” He was right. When I went back to Florida in the early 80s and saw the reefs, I said, “Oh my God, they’ve changed so much in 10 years.” I realized I was going to have to work on that, and not have the luxury of the photobiology I’d worked on before, because if we didn’t do something for the conservation of reefs, they’d be gone, and what was the point in knowing about them if they’re gone?

That, of course, leads to Chasing Coral and the Emmy. Has that changed anything about your job in Charleston, how your students look at you, for example?

The Dean walked into my classroom last year, and he said, “Do you mind if I come sit in on your class?” I said, “No, that’s fine,” and I gave him a test because we were having a test that day. Then, he turned to the class and said, “You know your teacher’s a rockstar, don’t you?” 

We all laughed about it, but I get a lot of students writing me emails, and a lot of them are fifth and sixth-graders that have seen the movie. I get a lot of student interest in it, and I can use it as a springboard to pull them into something.


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1 comment

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  • I am an emeritus year professor
    of biochemistry and cell biology at Stony Brook University. Many years ago my colleague Prof George Russell of Adelphi University and I were acting as instructors in a marine biology course from Adelphi in the Caribbean. Philip Dustan was a student in the course and George and I recognizing a talented student convinced him to apply to the Ecology and Evolution department at Stony Brook. The rest is history.

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