Friday Harbor Labs director steps down

  • Wed Jul 10th, 2019 1:30am
  • Life

Submitted Friday Harbor Labs

Friday Harbor Laboratories Director Billie J. Swalla’s connection with FHL has spanned several decades. She started with the University of Washington in 1999 as an Assistant Professor for the opportunity to work and teach at FHL. In 2012 she was acting director, then became interim director and was appointed FHL director in 2014.

July 1 marked the end of her 6.5 years at the helm of Friday Harbor Labs. June labs’ “Tide Bite” strays from its traditional format to be a thoughtful reflection by Swalla on her time as director, with a look toward the bright future of FHL.

Friday Harbor Laboratories is known worldwide for the marine research, teaching and community outreach that it has excelled at for the past 115 years. Many young marine scientists take their first marine biology course here and discover their passion, while others come from afar, banking on FHL’s reputation as a mecca for marine science. Every summer, the labs’ beds fill with 100 students and 100 researchers, and the FHL campus buzzes with activity.

Words from Billie J. Swalla

A dedicated and talented staff of 40 manage FHL’s flow of visitors, boats and spaces, and there are deep, time-honored traditions. The Invertebrate Ball is put on by the inverts course every summer, and the labs’ dining hall is transformed for an enchanted evening. Dock jumping is a favorite past-time when the weather is warm, and the Fourth of July celebrations are a wonderful time to mingle with an incredible San Juan Island community. It has been my honor to carry on these traditions, start a few of my own (Tide Bites, participation in the town’s Fourth [of] July parade), and I have been privileged to live and work with so many wonderful people in the past 20 years. As I move on to future endeavors, I carry these unique life experiences with me.

How does one encapsulate a rich and meaningful experience? Do we list the amount of money made, improvements accomplished, newspaper articles published or scientific papers accepted? Some important decisions can only be appreciated years later and some are made and instantly forgotten amidst the fast pace of academia. I judge my life by the people in it, and this has been a fantastic experience getting to know so many interesting, dedicated and insightful people at FHL, on San Juan Island, in the United States and internationally. I tell my students at all the marine labs we visit: leave your lab space and living quarters better than you found them. Keep up the great traditions, and make new ones!


I collaborated with UW’s School of Oceanography and School of Aquatic [and] Fisher[y] Sciences to establish a new Marine Biology major in 2019 within the College of the Environment at UW. We also created an FHL course prefix for all fall, spring and summer classes for the first time in 110 years! FHL is now listed in UW’s course catalogue.

Research and funding

We acquired a CT scanner for FHL’s Karl S. Liem Imaging Facility in 2015, via extremely generous funding (private and UW) totaling $300,000. This technology has enabled several new grants and at least two Twitter hashtags (#ScanAllFishes and #ScanAllVertebrates). I strove to increase diversity in the marine sciences through a unique Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the labs funded by a Blinks endowment, the National Science Foundation and BEACON. I teamed with FHL’s advancement board to establish fundraising priorities for the UW Campaign, and together we have raised $10 million-plus in the last seven years. We have worked with the College of the Environment and the UW Provost to create two new term faculty fellowships which pay faculty from the UW campus to come to FHL and bring their research and teaching programs with them for three years. We extend our heartfelt thanks to Bill Calvin and Katherine Graubard for their generosity in establishing one of the fellowships. Likewise, we are grateful to Jim Truman and Lynn Riddiford for their foresight in establishing an Endowed Professorship which in the future will hire a UW Biology faculty member to live and do research here at the Labs.


We worked with UW Central Services and the College of the Environment to secure $770,000 and replace the plumbing which was failing in the lower floor of FHL’s Fernald building. We also worked together to secure $750,000, and then worked with the Town of Friday Harbor to replace the sewer lift stations at FHL that were old and likely to fail. I brought our campus into compliance with Health and Safety standards and Chemical Safety within UW Environmental Health and Safety. We prepared a fire mitigation plan and secured $80,000 from UW EH&S to execute the work in Fall 2014: trees were trimmed and felled and brush removed to lessen the chance of a forest fire spreading on campus. I developed and executed a plan to bring FHL up to spec with the vehicles that we own with UW Fleet Services. I reorganized FHL staff and worked to establish full-time positions with benefits for all of the part-time staff who wanted them.


I established this “Tide Bite” publication you’re reading: a monthly communication of marine research sent to 6,000-plus subscribers which is also posted on the FHL website and sent to local newspapers. We coordinated with UW Seattle and the College of the Environment to buy an additional 5.6 acres adjoining FHL near the top of University Road, creating a buffer for our FHL campus. We improved community relationships by contacting the landowners surrounding UW preserves at False Bay and Argyle Creek on San Juan Island and discussing good stewardship of the land and marine habitats on San Juan Island.