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Writing ocean histories

Dr. Helen Rozwadowski to give 2020 Henrietta Harvey Lecture

By Terri Coles

Dr. Helen Rozwadowski’s time living in Erie, Pa., near the Great Lakes was the start of a lifelong fascination with bodies of water, fresh or otherwise.

“In my childhood, I went to the ocean once when I was 11 and never saw it again until I was about 19,” Dr. Rozwadowski said. “My interest in the oceans emerged from sailing on the Great Lakes and going to sandy beaches on Prescott Peninsula, which is right by Erie, and looking out over the water and reading Moby Dick, probably too early and too often.”

The oceans – and the ways humans have influenced them over the course of history – did manage to catch her scholarly attention along the way.

Human history with the oceans will also be the subject of the ocean researcher’s upcoming visit to Memorial University’s St. John’s campus, where she will give the Henrietta Harvey Public Lecture on Wednesday, Feb. 12.

Hemmed in by the land

The trip is not Dr. Rozwadowski’s first visit to Newfoundland and Labrador. She visited Memorial University as part of the ARTS on Ocean program in September 2015, though her first visit to the province came much earlier, while she was an undergraduate student.

That trip came about while she was attending Williams College in the mountains of Western Massachusetts and found she felt hemmed in by the landscape.

“I didn’t realize how important it was for me or how used to being by water I had become,” she said.

Henrietta Harvey public lecture poster

That realization led to the decision in her junior year to do a semester program called Sea Education Association that allowed her to study oceanography. It was on that trip that she sailed to Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as Sable Island and various other points in the North Atlantic.

As she continued her academic career, she combined her interests in both science and literature to do a PhD in history of science. Her graduate work was inspired by one professor, Mary Farmer, who told her about how oceanographers once did their work as they sat on the deck of a traditional sailing vessel.

“I took a seminar in the history of field sciences as opposed to laboratory sciences, and I said, ‘Well, let me look into oceanography. I’d like to know more about the history of oceanography,’” she said.

“And really, I’ve never looked back from there.”

An interdisciplinary approach

That interdisciplinary background and experiential approach to her education and research continues to inform Dr. Rozwadowski’s work today.

Her 2018 book, Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans, is a cultural, environmental and geopolitical history of the relationship between humans and the ocean that touches on science, work and play, and money among other subjects.

Dr. Rozwadowski is also the founding director of maritime studies, an interdisciplinary program with a focus on experiential education, at the University of Connecticut, Avery Point.

Her work at the university provides opportunities to advocate for the importance of the ocean and its histories along with the land-based histories that are so often the focus, she says.

“The ocean is a place that humans have had a relationship with for a long, long, long time. As we consider the effects of global climate change on the ocean, and the ramifications of overfishing and other human-caused changes to ocean environments, it’s important to think about our long history with the ocean, as well.”

Writing Ocean Histories, the Henrietta Harvey Public Lecture by Dr. Helen Rozwadowski, will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 12, at 7 p.m. at Signal Hill Campus at 100 Signal Hill Rd., in St. John’s. The lecture will be held in the main conference hall, room B-2007. Parking is available at no cost in areas 200 and 201.

The interdisciplinary nature of ocean studies is also made evident through the related sessions happening in conjunction with the Henrietta Harvey lecture. The four sessions, running from Feb. 11-13, involve various departments at Memorial including folklore, classics and ocean sciences. Further details on those sessions are available on the event page.

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