Gulf oil spill creates environmental research interest at FGCU

Loop Current or not, Southwest Floridians are keeping a watchful eye out for effects of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nowhere is that more true than in academia.

At Florida Gulf Coast University, professors and program leaders are eyeing the oil’s slow progression toward the school’s namesake coast, and considering the long-term effects of the spill on how they do their jobs.

From heightened interest among students studying environmental sciences to research on the clean-up and monitoring of toxins in Gulf waters, the possibilities are seemingly endless.

“I’m a chemist, so I think it will stimulate an interest in sort of tracking the environmental toxins that have been released,” Professor Jose Barreto said. “You might need some new methodologies. A lot of monitoring and tracking involves very expensive assays (testing procedures). If a sample costs $100 to process, there might be an impetus to get the analytical chemist to develop some better, faster assays to get environmental determinations. For example: are oysters safe to eat now?”

Barreto might be a little biased. He specializes in the study of environmental and biological toxins, and is working to create just the type of test he mentions: a quick, cheap way to measure the level of hydrocarbons in water, or in the blood.

There is hardly a silver lining to the Gulf oil spill. However, faculty members at FGCU see a heightened need for the type of research that could both prevent and clean up such an environmental catastrophe, as well as the trained professionals to carry that work out.

“The one thing to keep in mind is a lot of our former students are in the thick of it right now, out collecting samples for USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) and the Department of Environmental Protection,” said Darren Rumbold, associate professor and marine science program leader at FGCU. “Even small children right now seeing it on the news, seeing how it unfolds in the next few years, are probably going to be drawn into the environmental field. We certainly are going to need students trained in this science in the next few years.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sim Komisar found himself in demand for a similar reason: the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

“It spurred research interest in things like bioremedial techniques: using things like organisms, in particular, to consume oil,” said Komisar, program director of Environmental Engineering at FGCU. “There was money there to stimulate research from federal resources for several years. That has faded. We get other sexy, popular topics in research that replace it.”

Some of the professors interviewed for this story are skeptical that interest in the oil spill — especially developing alternative energies to replace oil altogether — will remain high in the long term.

For Rumbold, who has been studying mercury levels in Gulf waters for years, the oil spill threatens to overshadow long-term, persistent problems in the Gulf.

“The Gulf of Mexico has always been the stepchild, if you will, to the Chesapeake Bay or the Great Lakes,” Rumbold said. “There’s a lot more water quality problems in the Gulf of Mexico.”

But, Rumbold admitted the spill also has the power to renew interest in preserving that vast expanse of water — to remind people that it’s worth saving. To do that, he said, institutions like FGCU and marine research labs need research dollars.

“I’m hoping everyone sees that again,” he said. “We need the science to make decisions.”

FGCU has long been on the forefront of trying to promote that type of science. With a solar field that started providing about 18 percent of the university’s power in December, the school is promising to grow its presence in renewable energy.

University officials recently helped break ground for a 241-acre research park dubbed the Innovation Hub, where FGCU will occupy one building with a center for the study of renewable energy.

One of the developing partners of the park, John Backe, made a $1 million gift to the university last year to create a faculty chair for the study of renewable energy. While university officials have started advertising the position, a national search to fill the post hasn’t yet begun.

Galvano Development, which is developing and wooing companies to occupy 1.2 million square feet of planned research space at the Innovation Hub, is targeting companies with a renewable energy slant.

“It does re-emphasize the importance of renewable energy and what we’re doing,” company owner Rich Galvano said of the oil spill. “With Florida Gulf Coast’s involvement in the iHub, they’re already known for their work in renewable energy.”

Likewise, the university is looking at the addition of an environmental engineering major focused on alternative energy, though Komisar said it could take several years to become available to students.

The oil spill places a new urgency on the effort.

“It’s as if somebody gave you a new club to wield,” Komisar said. “It’s tip of the tongue, top of the mind — a very easy image to conjure. It legitimizes it instantaneously, which is perhaps unwarranted. We like to think legitimacy can perhaps be founded on firmer foundation — not just because of ecological degradation because of our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Depending on currents and wind direction, the oil spill may never hit the beaches of Southwest Florida.

But, if it does, the effects will be lasting, said Greg Tolley, a professor of marine science and co-director of the Coastal Watershed Institute at FGCU.

The level of an oil spill’s impact can be magnified in complex ecosystem filled with reefs, wetlands and marshes — like Florida.

“This is an impact that keeps on happening,” Tolley said. “It gets locked in sediments for a while. I think there will be some sustaining interest in this that will take it beyond the short term, beyond what the typical news cycles will be.”

All it takes is a single spark to ignite an interest in a topic, points out Barreto, even if it is a tragedy like a personal loss or a large-scale environmental disaster. For Barreto, that spark came from a book called “Microbe Hunters,” about the war against bacteria and disease.

“I tell students that if you want to do something about this spill, in analytical chemistry terms, it’s hard,” Barreto said. “You can say to yourself, ‘But, one day I’m going to help save the world.’ If you think about the motivation of biomedical people, you will hear, ‘Well, I want to help the sick.’ When you wash it all away, that’s what it really comes down to: they want to help some problem get solved.”

__ Connect with reporter Leslie Williams Hale at naplesnews.com/staff/leslie_hale

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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