Marine Lab Alum Named Director Of NOAA Lab Next Door

Greg Piniak PhD ’01

Duke University alum Greg Piniak PhD’01 is the new director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. The lab shares Pivers Island with the Duke University Marine Lab (DUML), where Piniak spent time working on his PhD, so he is in familiar territory.

As a PhD student at DUML, Piniak studied the nutritional physiology of corals and anemones, and how the presence of symbionts affects nutrient cycling and prey capture. He took advantage of DUML’s partnership with the Bermuda Biological Station for Research to work on nutrient cycling across different species of tropical corals.

Now, as director of NOAA’s Beaufort Lab, Piniak serves as the senior on-site scientist for the National Ocean Service/National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS). He is charged with coordinating scientific and lab activities, and liaising with facility partners (the National Marine Fisheries Service Southeast Fisheries Science Center and the North Carolina Coastal Reserve/National Estuarine Research Reserve programs). He also serves as a deputy division chief, working across NCCOS laboratories to advance priorities in marine spatial ecology.

For Piniak, who did postdocs with NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey before returning to NOAA as a research ecologist, this new position in Beaufort is a homecoming of sorts. He and his wife, Wendy Dow Piniak MEM’05, PhD’12 (also a Duke Marine Lab alum), are looking forward to being part of this coastal community again. “We’re looking forward to getting back to a place we love, to work and raise our family.”

Piniak’s connections to both Duke and NOAA will facilitate some new collaborations between the two institutions.

“There are already active working relationships and successful collaborations at the PI/faculty level, which is great for building connective tissue across the island,” he says. “Where I think there’s potential for growth is at the institutional level, like setting a big-picture goal that collaborations intentionally strive toward, and finding mechanisms to encourage that. Having worked both places provides me a unique starting point for those conversations.”

Piniak recalls his time at Duke fondly. “One of the great things about DUML is that it provided for diverse exposure to marine science, policy and social science. The coin of the realm in our [NOAA] office these days isn’t necessarily your publication list, but rather how you work with managers to provide the information they need for decision-making. You have to be able to communicate your science to folks with different backgrounds in order to do that, and for me that started at DUML because of the diversity of disciplines and career tracks inherent in the lab.”

On Pivers Island, Piniak will likely cross paths with current Duke PhD students. He has two bits of advice for them: “First, figure out whether your science is what you do, or who you are: whether your degree is a tool you use broadly or an entry point into a topic you love. There’s no wrong answer, but understanding where you fall on that continuum can help inform what career paths might give you the most satisfaction.

“The second thing is, corny as it sounds, get to know folks outside your peer group. Whether PhDs, CEMs, faculty, undergrads, whatever – those people will all be your professional network after you graduate, and you have no way to anticipate which connections you’ll need in the future.”