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The Catalyst

Researchers confront complex coastal challenges

by Dawn Brazell
Public Relations

Dark clouds of smoke emerge as oil burns during a controlled fire in the Gulf of Mexico May 6, 2010, as part of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response. To see the annual report and related stories, visit by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Stumberg

Not everyone has forgotten the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Certainly not researcher Michael Fulton, Ph.D. The air hangs hot and humid in a marine mesocosm as Fulton tours stacked, rectangular bins of Spartina cordgrass, a patchwork of mini-marsh ecosystems in this greenhouse laboratory. Scientists here at the Center for Coastal Environmental Health & Biomolecular Research drop in oil pollutants. They wait, watch and measure to learn how the simulated coastal ecosystem will respond.
Nearby at the Marine Environmental Specimen Bank, operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the temperature drops sharply. Research biologist Rebecca Pugh, decked out in Tyvek coveralls, sinks her gloved hands into spiralling mists atop barrel-shaped nitrogen freezers where temperatures at the base sink down to minus 150 degrees Celsius. She pulls out a long tray housing barcoded marine samples.

The scene takes a medical twist at the Marine Biomedicine & Environmental Sciences Center where Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) researchers Louis J. Guillette, Ph.D., a reproductive endocrinologist and developmental geneticist known for his fieldwork in alligator studies, and Demetri Spyropoulos, Ph.D, a developmental biologist and an expert in the manipulation of embryonic stem cells, pair their talents to investigate marine environmental contaminants and their possible effects on human health.

Meanwhile, Lori Schwacke, Ph.D., chief of the Oceans & Human Health Branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)/National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) HML, investigates the impact of environmental contaminants on dolphins in the Gulf.

An oiled dolphin photographed in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, Aug. 5, 2010. Researchers at Hollings Marine Lab are studying the effects of the spill in numerous projects.

What pulls these disparate fields and institutions together in a creative, scientific stew is the Hollings Marine Laboratory (HML), where they are all housed, and that they are part of MUSC’s Marine Biomedicine and Environmental Sciences program. The other unifying factor is the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill, aka BP oil spill, an event called one of the worst oil disasters in history. All of the groups, using their distinctive skill sets, are investigating the environmental effects of the spill that began April 20, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico and was capped 87 days later. It impacted about 500 miles of the Gulf’s shoreline and caused approximately five million gallons of oil to gush into the Gulf.

Dr. Jeffrey King, HML’s acting director, said it’s amazing to have one event being looked at from so many different angles. “Who would have ever thought that there would have been so many unique individuals from all of our different partners working on the same project?” he said. “It speaks to what we have in the way of talented individuals with diverse skill sets and expertise.  They were asked to be a part of something that was important to our nation at a time when things were getting out of hand and out of control.”

King said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) looked to the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) to come up with solutions for a very difficult problem that was happening in the Gulf, knowing that it wasn’t going to be a quick fix. HML is one of five centers within NCCOS, and the laboratory hosts five primary research partners that include: NOAA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, MUSC, and the College of Charleston. “They understood this event was something we’d have to deal with for many years. We have to know what those long-term impacts are now. In fact, there are effects we probably won’t see for another 10 to 15 years.”

In what might seem to be a bureaucratic nightmare of partnering organizations, researchers find that’s not the case at all. HML provides a laboratory of collaboration and cooperation. It’s an environment Guillette, who has conducted research worldwide, has found nowhere else. Although the agencies may have different missions, the scientists working together can have the same mission: trying to understand how the environment influences the health of the organisms that live in that environment, he said. “I’ve spent years doing environmental health. I’ve never been at a place where more than one or two people were interested in what I was doing, intellectually. Here, there are 20 or 30 people interested, so the difference is astronomical.”

King agrees. He recalls bringing all the principal investigators together in spring 2013. The first agenda item had everyone introducing themselves and their work. “I swear we couldn’t make it around the table because people were already starting to ask questions and form partnerships. What was supposed to be an hour-long conversation became a 2.5-hour conversation filled with brainstorming on possible projects.”

The difference goes beyond the collection of intellectual capital, though.

King said HML has an unusual pool of partners. Take NIST for example, which sets the gold standard in measurement, bringing to the table vast analytical capabilities. With a focus on the development of tools and very precise measurement that can be offered to other academic institutions, the federal government and other stakeholders, NIST sets important benchmarks with its rigorous standards. “Because of NIST’s capabilities, you know that the technology, new methods, or resulting data have been tested and verified on many different levels. It gives the HML partners that one extra step of validation as our products and results go forward towards application,” he said.

Add to that base the extra dimension of having a medical university in the research mix, and it creates a synergy hard to find anywhere else. “There’s no other entity such as HML that’s partnered with a medical university,” King said. “That’s the whole idea behind it. Back in the late ‘90s, the partner institutions were present at the Fort Johnson Campus, but they existed in their own individual buildings until former U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings, local stakeholders, the partners and the community recognized how valuable it would be to bring all these entities together under one roof,” he said.

“You can have a fisheries biologist working side by side with M.D.’s or Ph.D.’s who are investigating issues concerning human health. With these scientists working together, we can answer complex questions originating in estuaries and ocean-based environments, and link them to issues concerning human health and communities.”

For more information on MUSC’s Marine Biomedicine and Environmental Sciences, visit MUSC's Marine Biomedicine and Environmental Sciences Webpage at

December 7, 2014



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