Picture: Dr. Don Kelso (bottom center) with his family by the future site of the Dr. Don Kelso Learning Pier. (Photo by Christopher Bobo)
When Dr. Don Kelso joined the Mason faculty in 1970, both the university, and the field of environmental science, were just getting started. A pioneering aquatic ecologist, Kelso remained a fixture within the Department of Biology, and Mason, for the next 35 years until retiring in 2006.
A mentor and friend to hundreds of students, he was a key figure in establishing the PhD program in Environmental Science and Public Policy in 2000, the first PhD program in the sciences at Mason and the first doctoral program of its kind in the country.
Now a group of Kelso’s former students have united to honor his legacy at the Potomac Science Center, the waterfront environmental research center that Kelso played a central role in establishing.
On May 22, a group of over 30 former students, colleagues, and family gathered with Kelso at the Potomac Science Center to celebrate and thank him for his positive influence on their lives. They also kicked off a campaign to fund and build the Don Kelso Learning Pier.
Situated on Belmont Bay near the mouth of the Occoquan River, the center lacks a proper, full-sized pier. The College of Science has to rent nearby facilities to dock research boats, limiting the direct water access needed by faculty and students.
“Don has provided a lot of people with access to the water, through his science and field trips,” said Chris Powell, BS Biology ’73, MS ’77, Kelso’s first graduate student. “He’s provided so much opportunity, and it would be a real honor for him to have a pier named after him.”
The Don Kelso Learning Pier Committee is largely made up of his former students going back decades.
“We compiled a list of students Don mentored. Students in his coastal and estuarine ecology class, [students he was a] graduate committee member [for], or as thesis advisor,” said Dr. Chris Jones, Kelso’s longtime colleague and the current director of the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center. “It contains a breathtaking total of 274 students. And I have yet to talk to a student who didn’t love and admire Don.”
Together, the seven-person committee, with the support of others, has spearheaded a plan to build the pier using a design drawn by Powell. The College of Science recently authorized a feasibility study to determine the scope, estimated cost, and timeline for construction.
But the wider vision for the pier steps beyond the needs of Mason researchers. It will literally open the waters to new opportunities for partnerships, K-12 education initiatives, and the opportunity for Kelso’s legacy to continue helping Mason students for decades to come.
“I always felt blessed with the students that I had. And you all are the ideal example of that,” said Kelso. “Together we found out things we could do, and I wish I could do it all again — same students.”
Christopher Bobo 5/27/2021