Sherry Petry Reed ’82 dives into underwater career, lands in Hall of Fame
Sherry Petry Reed '82 BelizeIt’s 1982. A group of Wheaton students gather with their “Tropical Ecology” professor on an island beach in Belize. Sherry Petry Reed is there on the end, in the red shirt, plopped down in the sand. They all smile. The camera captures the moment.

Looking at that photograph, she could never have guessed that she had just posed for a snapshot of her future.

But that was, indeed, the case for Reed, who is a research specialist/dive safety officer at the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Fla. She is also the vice president of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, after becoming the first female scientific diving safety officer to be inducted into the organization in 2002.

The biology major traces her career and accomplishments right back to that Belize trip and her journey through Wheaton.

“After visiting the Wheaton campus during my senior year of high school, it was the one and only college to which I applied. Not only was the campus beautiful and historic, the science department had a stellar reputation,” Sherry Petry Reed ’82 recalls.

“My favorite professor was John Kricher. I took his ‘Tropical Ecology’ class, which turned out to be the foundation of my future career,” she says. “The culmination of the class was a three-week field trip to Belize, or British Honduras, as it was known at the time. The final week of the field trip was spent on a tiny island, South Water Cay, about 10 miles offshore of the town of Dangriga. There was another island just to the south, Carrie Bow Cay, and I was told it was a field station for the Smithsonian Institution. I thought at the time that it must be the coolest thing in the world to work there! Ironically, my lab, the Smithsonian Marine Station, now oversees all operations of Carrie Bow Cay. I’ve been able to work there about half a dozen times in the past three years.”

The Belize field study is an experience alums often talk about long after they leave Wheaton, notes Kricher, professor of biology. [Check out his Q&A in Panorama about his new textbook, Tropical Ecology, ]

“I recall Sherry Petry very well,” he says.  “She was part of Wheaton’s Belize trip when we were all ‘explorers.’ Wheaton had not attempted anything like this trip before I organized the course. We learned while having wonderful adventures. Sherry was very enthusiastic, particularly regarding diving on the barrier reef. She was one of my best students and she kept in touch after graduation.

“During the summers between college years, she worked at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History on cephalopod mollusks (squids and octopuses), and she was kind enough to send me some specimens for use in my ‘Animal Adaptations’ and ‘Marine Ecology’ courses. We still use some of those specimens today in the ‘Marine Biology’ and ‘Invertebrate Biology’ courses. She has certainly turned a really cool college experience into an admirable career.”

Sherry Petry Reed 1982 Celleporaria sherryae
Celleporaria sherryae

How admirable? In 2005, two marine organisms were named after her—Smithsoniarhynches sherryreedae, a new species of flatworm, and Celleporaria sherryae, a new species of bryozoan.

In 1988 she was appointed diving safety officer of the Smithsonian Marine Station, a research center specializing in marine biodiversity and ecosystems of Florida. According to its website, the station, a facility of the National Museum of Natural History, is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The work done at the station draws scientists and students from around the world. The information uncovered is published in scientific journals and forms the basis for public policies, conservation and resource management.

Reed’s work is incredibly diverse. She has long-term studies and experiments that she has conducted since she was first hired in 1983. She also is involved in several research projects with two resident scientists, post-doctoral fellows and visiting scientists.

Her varied fieldwork includes benthic surveys using ponar grabs, deployment and retrieval of fouling panels, collections of a multitude of invertebrate organisms, surveys and collections using scuba and skin diving, and general collections for various visitors and programs.

As the dive safety officer, she is responsible for about 30 divers. This includes teaching CPR and diving first aid classes, and administering exams; performing check-out dives; maintaining dive equipment; facilitating diving reciprocity with other research institutions; maintaining a budget; maintaining dive logs; and other routine day-to-day issues.

Sherry Petry Reed 1982She was named Environmental Researcher of the Year by the Conservation Alliance in 2005, has worked with the British Broadcasting Company on a number of documentaries on the giant land crab, and has served on the board of directors of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. The board sets standardized protocol for scientific diving and reciprocity among universities and research institutions.

She was nominated and elected to the Women Divers Hall of Fame board of directors in 2005 and, in March 2011, was elected vice president of the Hall of Fame.

Reed said she was very humbled being inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame because she is among some extremely fascinating, brave and creative women—186, to be exact.

The mission of the Hall of Fame is twofold: to recognize women divers who have made outstanding contributions to the exploration, understanding, safety and enjoyment of the underwater world, and to support underwater careers by promoting opportunities for women and men in diving, through scholarships, internships and mentorship opportunities, and a worldwide network of industry contacts.

Currently, there are four scholarships and six training grants sponsored by various members of the Hall of Fame. Historically, the majority of the funds have been awarded to graduate-level individuals. However, this year, Reed has initiated a $1,000 scholarship specifically focusing on undergraduate women engaged in research that concentrates on marine conservation.

It’s no wonder that Reed ended up where she is, given her background, passion and Wheaton opportunities.

A native of Bourne, Mass., she developed a love for water early, and science had always been one of her favorite subjects.

“I started swimming at a very young age and recall many chilly summer mornings taking swimming lessons at Monument Beach,” she says. “The afternoons were spent at nearby Mashnee Island, exploring the intertidal areas, playing with seaweed, and poking among the rocks. Marine life fascinated me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to pursue a career that somehow involved the ocean and the creatures that are found there.”

“Being from a military family, we moved several times. When I was in the third grade, my father was stationed in West Germany. Although the Alps and general topography of Europe was breathtakingly gorgeous, my heart longed for the ocean. Three years in Europe and then five years in Ohio further reinforced my longing to be near the sea.”

She chose to come to Wheaton because she was interested in attending a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, mainly to be close to her grandparents in Belmont, Mass., and her brother, who was attending Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

“After visiting the Wheaton campus during my senior year of high school, it was the one and only college to which I applied. Not only was the campus beautiful and historic, the science department had a stellar reputation,” she recalls.

By her sophomore year, she had the opportunity to assist Professor of Biology Edmund Tong with his classes and labs.

“I worked for him until graduation. It was another fantastic experience that helped lay the foundation for my career at a research laboratory,” says Reed, who also was on the cross-country team.

Her senior year at Wheaton she took an open-water scuba certification class. The final test dives were made in Buzzards Bay, during which she managed to collect a bunch of crabs. “I remember cooking a feast of them in the kitchen of the Meadows complex!”

During the summers while at Wheaton, she worked in the Division of Mollusks at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. There, she cataloged mollusk collections from many of the early scientific expeditions, some dating back to the 1800s.

Sherry Petry Reed 1982After graduating, she continued full time at the museum until she applied and was accepted as a research biologist with the Smithsonian Marine Station in August of 1983. She has been there ever since.

In 1988, Reed was appointed to serve as diver officer by Mary Rice, former director of the Smithsonian Marine Station and senior research scientist emeritus.

“Over the years, Sherry far exceeded my highest expectations,” said Rice. “In addition to her valued supportive role for the scientific research program—both in the field and laboratory—Sherry developed a diving program that met the highest professional standards…. Her achievements have been recognized not only within the Smithsonian and local community, but also nationally through her contributions to the American Academy of Underwater Sciences.”

In addition to accolades, Reed’s diving career has brought her great challenges, as well as great joy.

“Because so many of my duties are field related, the biggest challenges tend to be those that I cannot control. Weather and sea conditions pose significant challenges.  Additional problems quite often arise regarding equipment malfunction and failure, boating issues, trying to actually find the target organism or specimen.”

However, she notes, “There is a tremendous amount of satisfaction and pride that comes with the successful completion of a project, whether in its deployment, retrieval or routine collections. Overcoming adverse conditions or other challenges and achieving a positive outcome are, in themselves, incredibly rewarding.”

“I’ve also had the great opportunity to dive throughout most of the Caribbean Islands, Bahamas, Bermuda, Turks and Caicos, and the state of Florida…. I’ve been fortunate to join my husband, John Reed, a senior research professor with the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, on several expeditions to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands, Honduras and New Guinea, as their algal taxonomist.”

Ask her what she enjoys most about her work and images of that joyful girl swimming off Mashnee Island surface:

“Nothing compares to being able to breathe underwater,” she says. “I feel privileged to be a guest in such a peaceful and serene environment.”

Comment? (Subject line: Feedback)