USF's Peter Betzer has used both academic and political acumen to build a powerhouse marine program -- and has capped his tenure with a big high-tech partnership with a Silicon Valley firm.
Betzer says the partnership came together "just in time" for his team of ocean researchers, who've been frustrated by the difficulty in transferring their discoveries from the laboratory to the marketplace. The deal with SRI, he says, will provide greater access to federal research dollars and sought-after venture capital.
It will also cap a career for Betzer, who's retiring at the end of 2007. Perpetually smiling, the 64-year-old is a skilled persuader and operator in both the academic and political worlds. Over the course of his 36 years at the school, Betzer has cultivated a set of influential friends and allies who have helped him transform USF's marine science division from a ho-hum academic department with a nice view of Tampa Bay into a respected marine complex incorporating six agencies and employing more than 700 people.
"Some people in academia, especially in the sciences, tend to stick pretty close to what they know best, but Peter's also been pretty active in the community in other ways," says Peter "Rudy" Wallace, a St. Petersburg lawyer and former Florida House speaker who has known Betzer for nearly 25 years. "He's active on the board of directors of the Florida orchestra; he's very interested in politics; he's a master swimmer. He has a network there. Part of his skill is he reaches beyond his base."
When Betzer first arrived in St. Petersburg in 1971, the town was sleepy, and USF's marine science program had just turned 4 years old. Betzer, a chemical oceanographer from Wisconsin with a freshly minted doctorate from the University of Rhode Island, became the program's sixth faculty member. The marine science program -- it didn't become a college until 2000 -- operated its makeshift laboratories in an old merchant marine training facility along the backwaters of Bayboro Harbor. Betzer recalls how Les Tuttle, the school's first dean, would plant himself on an old couch behind the labs and fish: "I thought, 'Wow, this is really surreal.' He's sitting on a couch and casting into the bay. That was my introduction to the University of South Florida."
As a young researcher, Betzer spent anywhere from 45 to 50 days a year at sea, communicating with his wife and two daughters by ham radio. Betzer's various voyages took him to the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, North Pacific Ocean and the Sargasso Sea. His main research focus was atmospheric dust in the North Pacific, including the long-distance transfer of debris from continents to the ocean. "Deep ocean sediments were derived from the deserts," Betzer says, explaining how dust clouds stirred up in places like the Gobi desert eventually end up in the ocean floor and "like fertilizer on a cornfield" give rise to an array of microscopic plants. "We were the first to see the very large impact" that dust had on the marine environment, he says.
Betzer was making waves on land as well. In 1988, five years after being named chairman of USF's Department of Marine Science, Betzer spearheaded a collaborative research effort between the school and the U.S. Geological Survey, with help from U.S. Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, city officials and then-USF President Frank Borkowski. Another collaborative effort followed in 1991 when the marine science department teamed up with Florida's environmental agency to build a joint research facility. With Wallace's help, the Florida Legislature provided Betzer with the funding for five engineering positions to establish the Center for Ocean Technology in 1994. In 2000, with the help of former state Sen. Don Sullivan, he secured funding for eight engineers and launched a microelectro mechanical systems (MEMS) research initiative. Betzer says the engineering spots are a tremendous asset for the school's graduate training program, attracting students who are eager to work alongside engineers and collaborate in their research.