ECOGIG Perspectives Part 3: The ECOGIG Student & Post-Doc Experience, In Their Own Words

ECOGIG Perspectives Part 3: The ECOGIG Student & Post-Doc Experience, In Their Own Words
Georgia Institute of Technology graduate student Sarah Weber. (c) ECOGIG

April 27, 2015

While we all may be answering different questions, our scientific goal to understand the northern Gulf of Mexico in an unprecedented way is the same. I honestly can say I have never before experienced such a collaborative effort from the young scientific community and am proud to be a part of this hopefully enduring trend." Caleb King, a graduate student working with Dr. Chris Martens at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, is just one of dozens of students and post-doctoral researchers who have been involved in ECOGIG research over the past several years. Their stories serve as inspiration for all involved in ECOGIG. Read more student perspectives:

Luke McKay, Former Graduate Student with Dr. Andreas Teske (UNC Chapel Hill) (Currently at Montana State University)

The first Deepwater Horizon response cruise, by a graduate student who was there

In late April, 2010, two and a half years into graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was given the task of flying to San Diego to pick up deep-sea ocean sampling equipment from a research cruise the previous fall and drive it across the country back to our lab.  I asked my roommate, Matt James, another Marine Sciences graduate student at UNC, to tag along and help out with the driving.  We landed in San Diego and met up with some HOV Alvin submarine pilots for beers before heading to the dock the next day to gather our equipment from the R/V Atlantis. Eight days prior, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and began to change the Gulf of Mexico forever.  Matt and I continued east through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and as our cross-country trip carried us through the states most affected by BP’s pollution—and as the situation became increasingly considered a disaster—news of the spill began to take over all radio stations and dinner conversations around us. 

By the time we left my hometown in Birmingham, AL and the busted wellhead continued to leak, the disaster was breeding panic in the southeastern states.  On May 3rd, 2010, 11 days after the spill, we were on our way from Birmingham to Atlanta, and I received a phone call from my advisor.  Since he had never called me before I knew immediately he was calling with an urgent request.  Sure enough, several days into our cross-country road trip, Dr. Teske asked me to board a plane in Atlanta, fly to New Orleans, LA, drive to Cocodrie, LA, and hop on the R/V Pelican for the first scientific research expedition to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with Drs. Arne Diercks and Vernon Asper as chief scientists.  This sounded like a nice addition to the ongoing adventure so of course I agreed, and we made a pit-stop at the University of Georgia where a colleague, Dr. Joye, supplied me with four coolers of ocean sampling supplies and a digital camera. 

Matt dropped me off in Atlanta and took the last leg of the cross-country trip solo, and I made my way back to the Gulf of Mexico.  Aboard the Pelican I joined forces with many scientists from the University of Mississippi and the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology.  We left the dock on May 5th, 2010, just 13 days after the wellhead exploded, and pursued a course directly towards the greatest ocean pollution catastrophe in human history.  As we approached from hundreds of nautical miles away, I first noticed reddish brown chunks floating past the boat, then the wake of the boat became a deep red, and afterwards we passed through many distinct types of oil pollution—from gas sheen on the sea surface to “chocolate mousse” below the surface to thick, heavily banded crude oil slicks.

Seeing this type of extreme pollution firsthand was an overwhelming and surreal experience, like looking out the window of a plane and seeing a person swinging an ax at the wing—a naturally derived substance severely out of place and destroying its new home.  Throughout the next 4 days we collected hundreds of surface water and deep-sea sediment samples to be analyzed for their geochemical and microbiological characteristics.  The samples collected during this cruise represent the first in a time-series of multiple ECOGIG funded projects.  Data generated from this “time-zero” point has helped us outline the dynamics of microbial-oil aggregate formation, develop 16S rRNA probes to identify oil-degrading Marinobacter species, study the significance of exopolysaccharides in oil degradation, and isolate multiple hydrocarbon degraders from this polluted environment.

Lisa Nigro, Graduate Student with Dr. Andreas Teske (UNC Chapel Hill)

What is your role in ECOGIG?

I was part of one of the first research expeditions that went out while the oil spill was occurring. I had  just started  my graduate studies and had not collected samples yet for my project when the oil spill occurred, so I agreed to be part of the rapid response team.  I later provided research support investigating the microbial communities involved in the oil-impacted water and sediments.

What has surprised you about being involved in ECOGIG-funded research?

There were a lot of surprising experiences with my involvement with ECOGIG. We only had a few days to prepare for the research cruise, so initially we had to think about the technical aspects of the scientific collections as well as the logistics of getting to the port. I didn’t think about everything concerning the oil spill until we arrived. The first surprising thing about the Gulf of Mexico was just how many oil drilling platforms there are. Once you get past the shoreline, you see them frequently, and they are like tiny towns on the water. The sheer amount of oil was also shocking, especially around the DWH wellhead. There is also a lot of activity. Ships skimmed the surface oil and transported it to control burn locations, where we could see the large amount of smoke from the burns. It was the first time I saw the ocean on fire.

On our own ship, I was very impressed with how well the crew and the scientists met challenges and worked together to produce the best results possible with so little time to plan. The shipboard crew had to deal with so many problems, from the oil clogging the air conditioning system filter to an inability to continually make freshwater while we were out in oil-contaminated waters, to other mechanical issues. We also had to make strategic stops back at port to replenish consumable supplies and to ship time sensitive material back to labs to be processed. Despite the challenges, we collected many samples. We arranged it so we were working 24 hours to get as much material as we possibly could, and everyone involved was incredibly committed.

What's been your favorite part about being involved in ECOGIG-funded research?

The favorite part of my involvement with ECOGIG is seeing how dedicated the researchers were to studying the dynamics of the oil spill, even years after. My involvement in the research expedition also provided an opportunity to talk to other researchers, volunteers and the citizens in states bordering the Gulf.  I met one person who actually worked on Deepwater Horizon when we arrived at the airport before going out to sea, and we didn’t talk for long, but it really hit me that many people lived out in the middle of the ocean on these platforms, and how “out of sight, out of mind” they are. I also talked to many citizens, from high school students to adults, and really got to see people’s perspectives and concerns about the Gulf of Mexico, both environmentally and economically. I had the opportunity to also converse with researchers who were studying potential health effects of the workers who were exposed to the oil, and the difficulties of that assessment. There is still so much to be explored with the environmental impacts as well. I’m excited to be a part of ECOGIG research in the future.

Danielle DeLeo, Graduate Student with Dr. Erik Cordes (Temple University)

What is your role in ECOGIG?

I am Ph.D. candidate at Temple University researching the impacts of oil and dispersant exposure on several cold-water coral species found in the deep sea of the Gulf of Mexico. I have investigated these effects by implementing live exposure studies using various concentrations and mixtures of oil, the chemical dispersant used to clean up the oil (Corexit 9500A) and a combination of both. I also study the sub-lethal effects on spill impacted corals collected in the vicinity of the Macondo well following the spill, through gene expression studies using transcriptomics.

What's been your favorite part about being involved in ECOGIG-funded research?

My favorite part about being involved in this research is the various opportunities it has given me to go out to sea to perform field experiments and explore deep sea ecosystems. I have been able to view both spill-damaged and healthy coral communities via ROV imagery, which has further motivated me to study anthropogenic impacts, the findings of which can hopefully guide future spill remediation plans and conservation efforts.

Caleb King, Graduate Student with Dr. Chris Martens (UNC Chapel Hill)

What is your role in ECOGIG?

My current role as a graduate student in ECOGIG is to explore carbon and nitrogen cycling within cold-water coral reefs of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Specifically, my interests are in chemoautotrophic carbon production from enhanced nitrification in the water column above cold-water coral reefs.

What has surprised you about being involved in ECOGIG-funded research?

As a student member of ECOGIG, I am part of a unique community of researchers that share not only their knowledge of the northern Gulf of Mexico but also their spaces on cruises throughout the year. These opportunities to network and collect samples year-round make the ECOGIG research team invaluable and their results novel.

What is your favorite part of ECOGIG?

In addition to working alongside of experienced researches, graduate students in ECOGIG collaborate with each other while at sea together and across the country in different laboratories. While we all may be answering different questions, our scientific goal to understand the northern Gulf of Mexico in an unprecedented way is the same. I honestly can say I have never before experienced such a collaborative effort from the young scientific community and am proud to be a part of this hopefully enduring trend.

Andy Montgomery, Graduate Student with Dr. Mandy Joye (University of Georgia)

My role in ECOGIG has mainly been in Education and Outreach, because my PhD. project focuses on a system outside of the Gulf of Mexico. I have participated in nearly every Science at the Stadium event, as well as other similar events. Most memorable was the Boy Scouts Merit Badge course that we offered. At that event, we measured a few simple chemical properties in Lake Herrick and drove the mini-ROVs in the department pool. When we drove the mini-ROVs, I was surprised how invested it the scouts became. We had tiny magnets at the bottom of the pool for them to pick up using rebar attached to the sides of the ROV. They worked together by relaying the exact location of each magnet in relation to the ROV from across the pool. Even though this was a simple task, I was impressed at how well they worked together to achieve their goal. This hands-on task was crucial when we later showed them footage from ROVs collecting samples in the field. They had an exceptional understanding of how we study the deep-sea, because they were able to connect the videos with the task they had just completed. Without this hands-on experience, that connection would not have been the same.

Mary-Kate Roegner, Graduate Student with Dr. Mandy Joye (University of Georgia)

I am currently a second year Ph.D. student in ECOGIG interested in nitrogen cycling. ECOGIG gives us, as students, the ability to experience firsthand the resilience and resistance that the Gulf of Mexico has in the face of a major perturbation. This surprised me because I would have never thought that any ecosystem, in the face of such a significant disaster, would be able to respond in such a way and so rapidly. My favorite part about ECOGIG has been the bountiful cruise opportunities. There is not a year that goes by without the ability to investigate how the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem has changed or responded, which is crucial for our ability to understand how it may change for the future.

Sarah Harrison, Graduate Student with Dr. Mandy Joye (University of Georgia)

What is your role in ECOGIG?

As a first year graduate student funded in part by ECOGIG, I have begun graduate school at a running start. I am hoping to merge my interest in analytical organic geochemistry, microbiology, and physical chemistry to track oil’s transformations in the marine environment as it weathers. I find oil to be completely fascinating. As ubiquitous as plastics and oil are in day to day life—at your fingertips, fueling our cars, and dictating world events—the ecological impact of oil in the marine environment is poorly understood, and there is so much still to learn.  

What has surprised you about being involved in ECOGIG-funded research?

I’ve been surprised at how multifaceted the research team is. We have modelers, geochemists, microbiologists, engineers, and a whole menagerie of folks whose specialties cannot be encompassed under one single title. As a graduate student, it’s a wonderful privilege to see such a large research team work together on such a large undertaking.

What's been your favorite part?

I have really enjoyed the fact that outreach has been so integral to ECOGIG’s mission. Sharing our work with kids has been absolutely thrilling and, as a researcher, I find it refreshing in a wonderfully unexpected way. 

Lindsey Fields, Post-Doctoral Associate with Dr. Mandy Joye (University of Georgia)

I am a postdoctoral scientist who is mentored by a lead investigator in the ECOGIG consortium.  My role in the ECOGIG program is to participate in research expeditions at sea, and contribute to ongoing environmental sampling and experiments conducted by my laboratory group.  My favorite part about being involved in ECOGIG-funded research has been the opportunity to participate in ECOGIG’s large, multi-disciplinary oceanographic research cruises.  These cruises provide exciting opportunities to conduct groundbreaking research and interact with collaborating ECOGIG scientists.

Tingting Yang, Graduate Student with Dr. Andreas Teske (UNC Chapel Hill)

What’s your role in ECOGIG?

Starting with the oil spill fast response cruise in May 2010, I gradually developed my PhD project with the help of ECOGIG throughout the past five years. My work focuses on bacterial community dynamics in oil-impacted Gulf of Mexico water and the seafloor. The most important question of the DWH oil spill is the fate of the released oil and its damage to the environment and human beings. Although dispersant can break the crude oil into small droplets, the microbially-mediated biodegradation is the only way to transform oil-derived hydrocarbons into biomass or remineralize them to carbon dioxide. Therefore, monitoring long-term changes of the microbes, especially oil degraders that can be selectively enriched by the released oil, is a way to determine the fate of oil and evaluate ecosystem recovery.

What has surprised you about being involved in ECOGIG-funded research? What’s been your favorite part?

Working closely with other ECOGIG members I am able to collect water and sediment samples over years. In addition to microbiologists, ECOGIG has experts in geochemistry, geology, physical oceanography, etc. It is amazing how much support from other ECOGIG members I got throughout my study! Based on the collaboration which involves various disciplines, we are able to understand the impact of the DWH oil spill in multiple views. My favorite part of my PhD life was the 2010 Atlantis cruise. Not only my fantastic experience of diving to the bottom of the ocean with the Alvin submersible, but also all the “3 am coffee break” everyone enjoyed after working intensively. I made precious friends during my cruises -- that’s the best part.

Keshav Joshi, Graduate Student with Dr. Annalisa Bracco (Georgia Tech)

What is your role in ECOGIG?

I am a graduate student modeling the ocean at high resolutions (~1km) to understand particle transport related with the oil spill.

What has surprised you about being involved in ECOGIG-funded research?

The interdisciplinary nature of the research was probably my favorite part, learning about all these different types of research carried out in the gulf.

Kelsey Rogers, Graduate Student with Dr. Jeff Chanton (Florida State University)

My role in ECOGIG is to help collect and analyze sediment and POC samples for stable carbon and radiocarbon isotopes. My favorite part is going out in the field collecting samples. It's a different experience every time.

Sarah Weber, Graduate Student and Research Technician with Dr. Joe Montoya (Georgia Tech)

What is your role in ECOGIG?

I am a research technician and Masters student.

What's been your favorite part about being involved in ECOGIG research?

My favorite aspect of being a part of ECOGIG has involved growing as a scientist alongside the developing narrative of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  I initially joined the consortium as an undergrad simply looking for an exciting summer of fieldwork, and yet five years later I find myself still actively involved while preparing for a lifelong career in oceanography.  It's been an incredible opportunity for students:  going out to sea every summer to conduct fieldwork followed by an annual conference at which we can present our findings.  It's an excellent platform for scientific development.  

Matt Perkins, Graduate Student with Dr. Jennifer Field (Oregon State University)

I am a PhD track student in the department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at Oregon State University.  My research focuses on the development of methods for the quantification of the Corexit surfactants in various environmental matrices and the use of these methods for environmental sample analysis.  As an analytical chemist interested in the fate of contaminants in the environment, it has been great to be involved in a project that connects the impacts of a large-scale environmental insult to various ecosystem responses at many different scales of biological organization.  My favorite part of was being able to do some sample collection in the Gulf of Mexico and to understand how much work goes into generating these samples before I get a chance to work with them in the lab.

Read the Complete April 2015 ECOGIG Perspectives Series:

Part 1. Five Years After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Well Blowout

Part 2a. What ECOGIG Scientists Have Learned in the Past 5 Years, In Their Own Words

Part 2b. What ECOGIG Scientists Have Learned in the Past 5 Years, In Their Own Words

Part 3. The ECOGIG Student and Post-Doc Experience, In Their Own Words

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