O'Connor Visits VIMS

Justice O’Connor braves storm to visit VIMS

(April 10, 2007) Former Supreme Court Justice and current William and Mary Chancellor Sandra Day O'Connor braved bone-chilling winds and driving snow on Saturday April 7th to tour the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point.

VIMS Dean and Director Dr. John Wells notes that the tour marked Chancellor O'Connor’s first trip to VIMS, and the first visit to the Institute by a W&M Chancellor since Margaret Thatcher toured the facility in 1997.

Says Wells, "We were deeply honored by Justice O'Connor's request to visit our campus and to learn about our role in marine research, education, and advisory service. We only wish the weather would have been more cooperative."

Chancellor O'Connor's visit began at the Yorktown pier with a tour of the Pelican, a former military landing craft that VIMS has converted into a research vessel uniquely suited for studying the shallow, high-energy waters of the coastal zone.

VIMS Dean and Director John Wells walks through Saturday's snow storm with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor during her visit to VIMS.

O'Connor, who grew up on an Arizona ranch and has been inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, showed the grit that helped her become the nation's first female Supreme Court Justice by stating that she wanted to go on a scheduled boat trip across the York River to VIMS "no matter what the weather, unless the Captain says no." Unfortunately, 30-mph gusts, 3-foot seas, and heavy snow squalls forced Captain Charles Machen to keep the Pelican at the dock.

On arriving at VIMS by van, O'Connor toured the Institute's new seawater research laboratory, which when completed later this spring will be one of the largest facilities of its kind in the nation. She also visited Dr. Steve Kaattari's lab to learn about his efforts to use the power of the immune system to develop biosensors capable of detecting waterborne pollutants, and the lab of Dr. Deborah Steinberg to learn about her studies of the tiny floating plankton that form the base of the food chain in Chesapeake Bay.

O'Connor was particularly taken with the swimming ability of the barnacle larvae she observed under the microscope in Steinberg's lab, noting that they "could give a lesson or two to Michael Phelps," the Olympic gold medalist.

O'Connor's tour continued with a visit to the VIMS Boat Basin, where she learned about efforts to restore Virginia's oysters from Dr. Stan Allen, Director of VIMS Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center.

She also got a first-hand view of several large sturgeon that had been captured the day before by Dr. Chris Hager of the Virginia Sea Grant program at VIMS. Hager is working with local watermen to find ways to restore these once-common fish to the Bay by tagging and releasing fish taken from the James River. O'Connor, who chairs the Jamestown 2007 commemoration, expressed avid interest in the role that sturgeon played in supporting the early colonists.

Justice O'Connor's visit ended with a walk through the VIMS Visitor Center and a lunch with a number of VIMS faculty, staff, and students in the Hargis Library, where she displayed the probing mind of a Supreme Court Justice by posing detailed questions to several members of the lunch party following introductions to their worldwide research activities.

"A Chancellor's duties are few, and the privileges are many," said O'Connor during her lunchtime comments. "It has been a great privilege to come here today and learn about the importance of what you do."