Mike Williamson


The Nerdly, on-line version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" asks: What does the term "cetacean" refer to?

A) A recently-discovered dinosaur from level 18.5 in Diablo
B) Sea-dwelling mammals like dolphins and whales
C) A contributor to the Linux kernal
D) A throat lozenge

If your final answer is "B", you may be an authority on whales like our Nerd of the Week, Mike Williamson! Since 1988, Mike has been an Associate Professor of Science at Wheelock College, where he has taught a range of courses, including oceanography, ecology, and mathematics.

Mike's nerdly claim to fame, however, is the design, development and deployment of the WhaleNet Web site ( WhaleNet allows students, researchers and educators from around the world to share information and use actual research data and field studies to learn more about marine animals. The site gets about 30,000 hits a day, mostly from elementary, middle and high school teachers. It turns out that 90% of the site's visitors are from the U.S., the other 10% sign on from other parts of the world - over 130 countries have logged on.

Mike started his professional career as a middle school teacher. In his classroom, he used TRS-80's for word processing and basic programming (one class put together a pretty cool hockey game). His love for marine life eventually led him onboard several research vessels traveling throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. Later, Mike helped lead expeditions on the second Whale Watch boat out of Massachusetts Bay. Eventually, he was able to combine his career as an educator with his love for the sea.

Mike's evolution as a Nerd essentially began with the development of WhaleNet. In 1993, Mike was asked to participate in the marine science bulletin board EnviroNet. Through "tweaking" of the site by contributing his own research and inviting the contributions of other experts in his field, he drew the attention of a director at the National Science Foundation who contacted Mike and the concept of WhaleNet was born! In order to get WhaleNet off the ground (out of the water?), Mike learned HTML and other systems for page development. He also had the assistance of an advisory panel from BBN's Musenet program that taught Mike's team how to use interactive databases in building WhaleNet. The website's development was initially funded through a planning grant from the NSF. Later, Whalenet's financing came from a full-fledged grant from the same organization.Primarily, the website caters to schoolteachers new to technology. As a former middle school teacher himself, Mike could foresee the management crisis that could arise if large groups of students had to wait for complex features to download from the website. As a result, Mike helped build WhaleNet with no Java applets or frames to date.

Like most Nerds, Mike didn't earn his first merit badge on his Nerdly Beanie Cap until disaster struck. Mike's worst programming disaster occurred in the first few months of operation, when he unwittingly erased all images on WhaleNet. Fortunately, he had backed up the information and was able to restore the imagery. What did he learn from this fiasco? "Check it and check it again, I learned to be more careful."

To justify more Nerdly merit badges, you should know that Mike's programming palette includes a wide array of Marine Technology applications, including Harbor Master (a program that records tidal activity around the world), as well as Page Spinner and Microsoft Office. His weapons of choice are MACs and a DEC ALPHA server that can truly scream. Although he has gotten skillful in his work with HTML, Mike refuses to cross the line and learn UNIX for fear "that he would have no life at all." As it is now, Mike spends so much time in his office and on the computer that his wife complained he wasn't spending enough time with the family. In true nerd style, Mike ran a wire to the kitchen counter and facilitated more quality time with the family while creating an oh-so-convenient additional network connection.

When he is not computing, Mike enjoys getting out on the water, officiating lacrosse games and playing with his kids. His role model is fellow researcher and scientist Paul Colombo, the first director of EnviroNet. Mike admires him because "he's a free spirit who knows his stuff." Although he's not one to blow his own foghorn, Mike himself has authored numerous articles and research papers and claims several professional affiliations. His website has been honored by organizations like Scientific American, the BBC and the Discovery Channel. WhaleNet was also chosen to exhibit in the U.S. pavilion at Expo '98 in Lisbon, Portugal. Mike plans to use the resources available at NerdWorld to index his website and to tap opportunities for wanton self-promotion (ipso facto his star status as our new Nerd of the Week).

When his days of teaching and technology are far behind him, Mike would like to be remembered "as a footnote." When pressed to explain this cryptic response, this professor-of-few-words simply replied that he'd like to be remembered for valid, real work that has had an impact. We are quite taken with Mike and his ability to negotiate cyberspace and Waterworld, somehow joining these realms in a way that is both personally satisfying and educational for technophiles and nature lovers worldwide. NerdWorld encourages you to check out the WhaleNet Web site. Click here to swim there.

Morgan Michaels
Contributing Editor