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Charles H. "Pete" Peterson in his lab.
Charles H. “Pete” Peterson

Charles H. “Pete” Peterson, Ph.D., 74, distinguished professor emeritus at the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences, passed away Oct. 24 surrounded by family in his Pine Knoll Shores home.

“Pete will be greatly missed at IMS and throughout the marine sciences community,” said Rick Luettich, director of IMS. “He leaves an extensive scientific legacy in the understanding and the conservation of coastal-zone ecosystems and he was deeply committed to bringing science to policy and action. For over four decades he set a compelling example of how to blend imaginative research, passionate teaching, and committed service for the public good. His legacy will live on through the many students and colleagues he influenced and the substantial policy he effected.”

Peterson was born in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, on Feb. 18, 1946. He attended high school at The Lawrenceville School, and in 1963 received a National Science Foundation Junior Award for study at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, cementing his love for marine science research. Graduating as valedictorian in 1964, he then went on to Princeton where he completed his AB in biology with his undergraduate thesis under Robert H. MacArthur. He then earned both master’s (1970, biology) and doctoral (1972, population biology) degrees at the University of California, Santa Barbara under Joseph H. Connell.

From 1972 to 1976 he was an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Until his retirement in 2019, Peterson spent the remainder of his career at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences interspersed with visiting scholar stints at universities across the globe. In addition to a prodigious record as an academic and educator, he devoted considerable time to service, as a member of professional societies; as a long-time journal editor; in roles on numerous management and regulatory commissions, scientific panels and steering committees, including the Scientific Advisory Board for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees and 24 years on the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission; and in innumerable presentations to area civic groups. He was the recipient of numerous professional awards including recognition as a Pew Charitable Trusts Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and the Pelican Award for environmental service by a government official from the North Carolina Coastal Federation. For his service to the state, Peterson received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest civilian honor bestowed by North Carolina.

Pete Peterson in 1985 stands in front of a table lined with shells.
Peterson in 1985

Peterson’s proudest professional accomplishment, however, was his students. He trained over 50 graduate students and post docs and mentored hundreds of undergraduate students. He helped them to not only become world-class scientists, but also effective science communicators and advocates. If asked, he would tell you that Strunk and White’s Elements of Style was the most important thing he could impart to his students. He often said, with a Cheshire grin, that it was “The magical little book that teaches you how to not sound like a scientist when you communicate.”

Avery Paxton, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one of Peterson’s last Ph.D. students, noted a widely held opinion of the well-rounded training he provided, “He taught us that we have a responsibility to transcend our role as scientists to also serve as ambassadors to the public on ocean issues,” she said. “He firmly believed that the scientific process is incomplete until we share findings with resource managers, policy makers, stakeholders, and the public.”

In addition to the students who trained under him, he was also a generous mentor to junior faculty colleagues. Mike Piehler, IMS professor and director of the UNC Institute for the Environment noted, “When I transitioned into a faculty role, he was a really important mentor to me,” Piehler said. “When you’re a junior faculty member, having someone looking out for you is a really positive thing. It can be a little overwhelming trying to start.”

A pioneer in the field of coastal ecology, and a passionate advocate for ensuring that good science ended up in the hands of those who could make a difference, Dr. Charles “Pete” Peterson has left an indelible mark and made the world just a little bit better for us all. He will be missed.

Peterson is survived by his wife Christine, sons Chip (Cameron) and Perry, his brother John (Bonnie), niece & nephews Julie, John, and Joshua, step-children Chelsea (Jonathan) and Ben, and grandson James.

In keeping with Peterson’s life-long passion and dedication to promoting exceptional science in the service of conservation through action, the family requests that in lieu of flowers, those who wish may consider donating to the NC Coastal Federation as well as planting a native species in his honor.

By Kerry Irish, UNC Institute of Marine Sciences




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