Her parents raised her to question soft spots in science. Ward was born to two chemists, Charlotte and Curtis Ward, in 1954. Both taught at Auburn University in Alabama, and Bess spent her childhood there with an older sister and two younger brothers. Family members recall Bess asking questions about chemistry research at the dinner table before her young feet could reach the floor.

While her parents and three siblings stayed in the South, Bess Ward went to Michigan State University and graduated in 1976. The university labeled her degree Zoology, she says, "because my freshman counselor didn't understand what I meant when I said biochemistry."

To this day, colleagues find it difficult to classify her. In a modern scientific world that encourages a narrow research focus, Ward prefers the big picture. Officially, she is a "biogeochemist," which means she is a biologist, but a biologist who studies geology, and, well, a biologist who also studies chemistry.

In her graduate career at the University of Washington, this broad view became her trademark. She took lab techniques from immunology, (the study of the body's response to disease), and used them to study ocean bacteria. A graduate student rarely makes a major contribution to science, but her early results now commonly appear in the footnotes of oceanography research papers.

She wasn't a one-hit wonder of science. After earning her Ph.D. in 1982, she spent the next seven years at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Now 43, Ward heads the marine sciences department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "I've always loved to work in the field," she says. Ward has collected bacteria from the Arabian Sea, from Antarctic lakes, and from the northern and southern Pacific Ocean. In 1997, she became the youngest scientist -- and the only woman -- to ever receive the Evelyn Hutchinson award, an international prize given to a mid-career scientist who has made exemplary contributions to oceanography and who promises more to come.

Her success in California hasn't taken Alabama from her personality. She knows how to nurture a conversation. Whether chatting with a colleague, addressing a group of students, or talking over pink solutions of bacterial cultures, she speaks as if she's thinking of a joke. The corners of mouth appear ready to leap into a full smile at any moment.

In her office, she smiles as she sketches a flow chart of chemical compounds. Ward wants to understand how oceans cope with nitrogen.