Scripps alumni Elliott Smith (left) and Art Wolfson in 2015.

Scripps Alumni Spotlight: V. Elliott Smith

Researcher and author V. Elliott Smith, PhD '68, reflects on his career and discusses his new mystery novel

Environmental researcher and writer V. Elliott Smith is an alumnus of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego who graduated in 1968 with a PhD in marine biology. A self-proclaimed “water rat,” Smith grew up in Panama City, Fla. near the Gulf of Mexico. He majored in biology at Florida State University and stayed on there for a master’s degree in zoology until 1964. A chance meeting with a Scripps graduate student at a conference encouraged Smith to contact Denis Fox, a marine biochemist at Scripps, about becoming one of his students. After studying under Fox and obtaining his PhD, Smith served as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve in Korea. For most of his professional career he worked on the Great Lakes as an environmental researcher and consultant.

While science and writing have always been his first loves, Smith said his artist grandmother inspired him to dabble in drawing, sculpture, and design. Now that he lives in Boulder, Colo., Smith said he’s “majoring in earth science.” We caught up with Smith to talk about his career, memories from his time at Scripps, and the release of his new novel Deep Tow, a maritime thriller. 

What are some of your best memories from your time as a student at Scripps Oceanography? 

So many good ones. Studying at Scripps in the ‘60s was a front row seat at a parade of great discoveries in ocean science. Many of our teachers were founders of their specialties in marine research. But some of my favorite memories are of being underwater collecting and studying marine life. And who wouldn’t want to live and work by a beach in La Jolla, Calif.?

What career path did you follow and how did your education at Scripps help to prepare or support you? 

After Scripps I had to serve two years in the Army, and academic jobs were scarce when I returned to the U.S. My Scripps adviser, Denis Fox, went on a sabbatical to Cranbrook Institute of Science in Michigan and started a lake research project. I followed him there to continue the project for a “couple of years.” Some 35 years later, I was wrapping up a career of environmental research on the Great Lakes. Sometimes a minor fork in the road turns out to be a momentous choice.

Were there any people or experiences that were particularly important or helpful for you during your time at Scripps? 

If you’re planning to go to graduate school, I think it’s best to identify some professor somewhere who is an authority in whatever interests you most. It’s a huge advantage to have an adviser who shares your interest, serves as your mentor, finds you an assistantship, and steers you to opportunities then and later on. I was lucky to find all that at Scripps, plus exposure to so many other fascinating people and their research. As a new grad student, it helps to remember that the whole faculty wants you to succeed.

What inspired you to write Deep Tow and how can people get a copy of the book? 

The e-book Deep Tow can be found on Amazon here. I write for personal satisfaction, not for a living, so the price is right! But if you hate reading on screens, the paperback will be out soon. This and my other novel, Findings, were both inspired by real undersea discoveries, and I invented the human complications that arose from them. Throw in a love affair and it gets even more complicated! After a half century of scientific and technical writing, fiction is a fun new world I’ve discovered. And it gives me an excuse to learn new things to make the story work.

How did you get involved in your volunteer work with Noble Odyssey Foundation? What inspires you about the organization and what are you doing with them? 

Over its over 45-year history, the Noble Odyssey Foundation (NOF) has trained hundreds of young Sea Cadets (middle to high school age) to be research divers and has involved them in underwater scientific and historical projects on the Great Lakes. A good friend of mine founded it, and I’ve been their scientific adviser for many years. It’s a totally volunteer-run organization, supported by donations and grants. Many of its student “graduates” have gone on to successful careers in science, government, business, and the Navy.

What are some of the challenges or obstacles you’ve overcome in your career?

I grew up in Florida on the Gulf Coast—a blessing for me. Maybe my biggest shortcoming was that I always preferred being in the water to sitting in a classroom. School became increasingly more interesting in college and graduate school where I could zero in on the marine science topics I liked. Let’s hear it for late bloomers!

What advice do you have for current Scripps students and recent graduates?  

I highly recommend watching this inspiring interview with another Scripps grad, oceanographer and astronaut Dr. Megan McArthur, who will command the next SpaceX mission. She says you should figure out what subject or activity excites you and learn everything you can to make it happen. Also learn and practice good communication skills! Then you’ll become an expert in your field and have fun along the way. I couldn’t agree more.

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