uring World War II American GIs traversing Europe would scrawl the enigmatic slogan, “Kilroy was here,” on every available open space they could reach. It was meant to signal that the Americans had arrived and were everywhere.

Today it is the dream of Edie Widder, who received her Ph.D. in Neurobiology from UC Santa Barbara in 1982, to take her version of “Kilroy” to every corner of the ocean. “Kilroy” is the nickname for a water quality monitor that Widder developed for ocean water quality research.
In early January 2011, Widder was on a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, testing Kilroy in areas affected by the British Petroleum oil spill and determining whether it can produce results over a large area of ocean. The device, which is no bigger than a football, monitors water speed, direction, temperature, salinity and the prevalence of microorganisms that indicate the vitality of a particular part of the ocean. In theory, Kilroy networks would be seeded over vast tracts of the ocean to measure changes in water quality and pinpoint where those changes are occurring.
Kilroy is not the first piece of scientific hardware that Widder has invented for ocean research. Her HIDEX instrument is used by the U.S. Navy to measure bioluminescence in the ocean, a tactic useful for submarines trying to remain invisible on the ocean floor.
She related in a recent interview that her love of the ocean dates back to a trip she took as a child to Fiji at the age of 11 and developed during her years at UC Santa Barbara where she studied both neurobiology of marine organisms and biochemistry. Her career took a turn to bioluminescence after she took a dive in a submersible. “It completely changed the course of my career,” Widder told the National Oceanographic and Oceans Administration.
“I had to learn a lot of new material to change the direction of my research but that’s the wonderful thing about being a research scientist — you are always learning new things.”

She went on to become an expert deep-sea diver in submersibles like WASP, DEEP ROVER and DEEP WORKER. In 2005, she was inducted into the Women Divers’ Hall of Fame and in 2006 she received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” That was after founding the Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Ft. Pierce, Fla.

ORCA receives support from the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research and private foundations to develop new technologies to monitor the water quality in the ocean using inexpensive equipment. Besides its deployment in the Gulf of Mexico, ORCA’s Kilroy system is also monitoring water quality in stream systems that empty into the Chesapeake Bay.
Recent reports of continued degradation of the world’s ocean should be “a real wake up call,” she warned. “To avert a crisis we need to educate people on how they can be part of a solution.”

That’s why we need Kilroy.

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