Bob Wilce is still around and kicking!

by Alan Richmond

Over a decade ago emeritus professor Dr. Robert Wilce was featured in the BioMass No.1 issue. At the time Bob was in his mid-seventies and had recently received an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Copenhagen for his decades-long work in the field of phycology. Back then Bob was of an age when most folks would settle comfortably into retirement. Now a decade later Bob is still hard at work.

Retired for nearly 20 years, Bob gave up his office and lab in Morrill Science Center and moved to a quiet corner of Clark Hall. Most days he can be found in his office surrounded by the trappings of this once beautiful 19th century building: high ceilings, chestnut paneling and eastern light filtering through the white mulberry volunteer that years ago took root among the rhododendrons and now blocks much of the old 8ft tall windows. Every horizontal surface is buried under decades of research: herbarium sheets, cases of microscope slides, and jars of yellow/brown fluid containing algal treasures collected decades earlier. In between the several Wild dissecting scopes and old binocular scope with a camera lucida can be seen the most recent specimens of interest. In this phycological retreat Bob continues to do what he has been doing since the early 1950's; editing publications, organizing "one last expedition" to the Arctic, e-mailing colleagues (and fishing buddies) or finding funding for one last student. Bob never chooses to do things because they are easy. Consider his passion for studying arctic marine algae in the 1950's when studying Arctic algae meant arduous trips to Labrador, Northern Alaska, Greenland, Europe and the Canadian archipelago that includes Baffin Island. Most of these trips required monumental efforts not just is funding, organizing and transport to the study area but in collecting the samples. The algae of Bob's interest grow in waters up to 100ft deep. In the 1950's SCUBA was in it infancy wet suits were primitive by today's standards and tanks were just glorified fire extinguishers with J-valves on them. To confound things they only produce their diagnostic fruiting bodies in the fall when things are really dark and really cold. Bob would often surround himself with sled dogs in an effort to conserve heat as he climbed into his SCUBA suit in preparation for diving. Diving in these conditions was extremely difficult and dangerous. Seeking assistance from local Eskimo guides, people well acquainted with the rigors of Arctic life and way too smart to dive into Arctic ice water, Bob and his colleagues would travel to obscure and desolate parts of the planet and endure enormous hardships to collect these seemingly disinteresting plants of the high Arctic.

It seems only fitting that Bob's fascination with seemingly obscure algal communities in the high Arctic have, in this era of concern of global climate change, brought enormous import to his decades of research. He recently summarized the data he amassed over 50 years and published it as an iconic paper detailing the effects of the warming of the arctic seas on algal community composition. Never opting for the easy way out, Bob learned new computer programs to assist in the generation figures and learned how to compress files for electronic submission. It took nearly a year and half of writing, editing, and generating figures before the paper was complete.

Bob will be the first to tell you that he is slowing down a bit. Several serious health issues prevented him from leading a recent trip to the Canadian Arctic although he did organized the trip, obtain the funding and supplies and arrange for the guides. Despite recurring health issues he continues to remain active in the Northeast Algal Society and as a mentor for students. In his spare time indulges his other passion, fly-fishing. He still ties his own flies (Last year, as a torment I gave him a couple dozen dry fly hooks sizes 26, 28 and 30. He returned them neatly tied as an assortment of dry flies.) He still wades out over the slippery logs and cobbles to challenge trout in the cold New England rivers. Just a week ago he landed a 22-inch brown trout on a 2-weight fly rod ---bragging rights for any angler regardless of age.

A couple of weeks ago Bob said he was tired. He said that the honors student that he supported this year would be his last, he no longer has the energy to take on another and the 1 1/2 year effort of publishing his last paper exhausted him. In his next breath he was wondering aloud how he was going to tell his wife that he was planning to take a week's time-share in an condo in Steamboat Springs, Colorado so he can spend some time fly-fishing the Yampa and White Rivers. As a friend and colleague once said "Bob is a man who has no patience for his own frailty". How wonderfully true.