In 1998, The Alliance hosted an “Across the Generations Dialogue” conference at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. The conference brought together the luminaries in coastal and estuary ecology and graduate students studying and researching in the same field.

Leila Hamdan was a graduate student at the time at George Mason University studying water column microbes and their Impact on oceans and coastal processes.  

Leila is now the Associate Director of the School of Ocean Science of Engineering at the University of Southern Mississippi, and her area of expertise is in Marine microbe ecology. As a graduate student at George Mason University, Leila studied water-column microbes in the Chesapeake Bay and was looking into the development of hypoxia and anoxia in the Chesapeake Bay.

“We were figuring out how many microbes there are, what they are doing, and how much oxygen they are actually breathing,” says Leila. “We were studying the connection to other water quality parameters, and it really only connected to one- how much oxygen is present, and we discovered the correlation between microbes and oxygen, and it’s a negative correlation.”

The major takeaway was discovering that the bay has more bacteria on an average day in the Potomac River than in some estuaries in Southeast Asia that have visible sewage in them. Leila describes, “It’s almost as if microbes are standing up on the top of mountains screaming, ‘you should pay attention to us; we are doing things!’ Pay attention to the microbes; they have stories to tell.”

This discovery set a new direction for Leila’s research career. She wanted to continue studying the mysterious processes of microbes and how they impact and shape the world. Her pursuit of these microscopic organisms has led her to the depths of our ocean’s environments, where she now studies ocean sprawl. The development and construction of artificial structures in our marine and coastal environments can transform the habitat and cause a phenomenon known as ocean sprawl. Most recently, Leila is researching shipwrecks to determine the effects that they may have on the biodiversity of deep-sea microbes.

Along with her past and current accomplishments, Leila is also the president-elect of the Coastal and Estuary Research Federation. At the Across the Generations conference 23 years ago, Leila got to meet the first president of the Coastal and Estuary Research Federation, Eugene Cronin, “I would never have thought that I’d follow in his footsteps,” exclaimed Leila. 

Leila shared that she still has her conference program signed by some of the attending scientists. In attendance, along with Eugene Cronin, were eight other prominent scientists whose work primarily spanned between the 50s to 80s including, John Gottshalk, James Coulter, William Hargis, M Gordon “Reds” Wolman, Donald Pritchard, John Costlow, and Ruth Patrick. 


Grace Bush was a very prominent scientist in the 70s and 80s and had many leadership roles that were unique at the time for a female. Leila still can’t believe Grace wrote in her program, “Good luck with your microbes.”

“I’m sure that I was standing there starstruck, stumbling over my words, but I guess I was able to articulate enough of the work that I was doing that she was able to sign my program and write that.”

Holding up her 23-year-old program, Leila said, “It is one of my most prized possessions because I really appreciate the history of our field and the people who have shaped that history. I don’t know if I really connected at the 1998 meeting how important it was to meet historical figures in our community, especially since two of them passed away within months of the program. It was that one shot to get to meet them. It is a really important piece of my own history.” 

This Across the Generations was obviously very impactful on Leila’s life. She also recalled when the older scientists were asked “What was the greatest scientific discovery in your field of your time?” they all pointed to one of the panelists, Donald Pritchard, a coastal physicist who discovered how estuaries circulate. “I remember thinking how amazing that was and how any one of my peers sitting in the room with me could change the course of science in my lifetime! I kind of packed that away and thought- maybe that could be me!”

When asked to give advice to future generations in her field, Leila said, “Get yourself a lot of mentors.” She expressed the importance of having mentors in all factors of your life. “Pack yourself with people who are honest and trustworthy and who will tell you the truth when you need to hear it, and that will make all the difference in careers.”

Leila recognizes the importance of guidance and knowledge from the older generations. “It’s been 23 years since that conference, and I still remember it clearly, and I can’t say that about most conferences. It really stuck in my head that history is important and that we build on that history.” 

Leila pictured on the bottom far left


The Alliance prides itself on 50 years of convening voices throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. It’s all part of our mission to improve our lands and waters and the Across the Generations Dialogue is a great example of a conference that started conversations and made a real impact. To learn how you can get involved, check out some of our upcoming events here.