Family, friends, and colleagues gathered at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) on June 21 to honor the memory of Jianwu (Jim) Tang, senior scientist and integral member of the Ecosystems Center from 2008 to his passing in January (please see MBL obituary here).

Near a dedication plaque and a young dogwood tree that had been planted in the MBL Quad in Tang’s memory, his colleagues shared reminiscences of an exceptional scientist, collaborator, mentor, and friend.

Tang was “an inspirational scientist who made tremendous contributions to our understanding of ecosystems ecology, the terrestrial carbon cycle, and vegetation remote-sensing,” noted his obituary in Nature Ecology and Evolution. “Moreover, Jim always advocated for early career ecologists, and mentored and supported many undergraduate students from underrepresented groups via several programmes. He also had a key role in international and national ecological networks, including the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).”

“Jim embodied the values of the MBL in his research and teaching,” said MBL Director Nipam Patel in his remarks at Tang’s memorial. “His research was designed to have an impact, both locally and globally, in terms of meeting environmental challenges.”

bronze plaque commemorating Jim Tang
A bronze plaque in the MBL Quad commemorates Ecosystems Center scientist Jim Tang. Credit: Diana Kenney
dogwood tree
A young, native dogwood tree (foreground) has been planted in the MBL Quad in memory of Jim Tang. Credit: Diana Kenney

Anne Giblin, director of the MBL Ecosystem Center, talked about the personal qualities and initiatives that had earned Tang such warm and high regard in the scientific community.

“When Jim came to the MBL, he had already made important contributions to understanding the linkages between photosynthesis and respiration in plants,” Giblin said, and he continued to conduct cutting-edge work to understand these two main components of the terrestrial carbon cycle. Tang conducted research in New England salt marshes and forests and in Arctic tundra, and he developed important remote-sensing tools that enable scientists to measure photosynthesis at the landscape scale.

“Jim was a scientist at the very top of his game when he became ill and his loss will be deeply felt by the scientific community,” Giblin said.

“Jim had a reputation and CV as someone really technically competent when he came to the Ecosystems Center,” said Chris Neill, former MBL senior scientist and Ecosystems Center director, now at Woodwell Climate Research Center. “We soon realized Jim was also a great ecologist and thinker, beyond his technical capabilities. He brought diversity and immense scientific productivity to the Ecosystems Center, and he was also the most amazing person for forming networks. He wrote all these papers where he was the first author followed by 20 or so names, always on some topic just ahead of its time.”

jim tang in salt marsh
Jim Tang measures greenhouse gas fluxes at Waquoit Bay, Falmouth, in 2013. Photo courtesy of Jim Tang

Tang did significant work on greenhouse gas fluxes in Cape Cod marshes with an eye toward improving salt marsh management strategies to increase their capacity to store carbon. In these efforts, he collaborated with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole (USGS), the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and the Cape Cod National Seashore, some of whom attended the memorial.

"Jim was a central partner on our science team" for the "Bringing Wetlands to Market" project, which evaluates "blue carbon" storage in wetlands to develop practical applications therein, said collaborator Kevin Kroeger of USGS. Tang also worked extensively with Hudson Carbon to assess how different cropping practices could help restore degraded agricultural soils and increase their capacity to store carbon.

Tang’s dedication to training young scientists was also praised. MBL Director of Research Anne Sylvester read moving letters from some of Tang’s former PhD students and postdoctoral scientists that noted his outstanding mentorship, especially how he encouraged them to try out new technologies and approaches, and to explore a wide range of research topics. Giblin noted that he worked with many undergraduates in the MBL’s Semester in Environmental Science program and the Woods Hole Partnership in Education Program (PEP), and that he mentored students from all over the world.  

“We have not only lost a very talented and dedicated researcher, we have lost a friend and collaborator,” said Giblin. “We will miss Jim’s infectious laugh, his unbounded optimism, his willingness to take on big, hard problems. Jim was never daunted to take on bold projects, even if it involved measuring key characteristics of literally tons of soils or traveling to sites all over the world. And of course, we will miss his ability to help connect the science we do with the global scientific enterprise.”