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UGA Skidaway Institute scientist participates in congressional briefing on plastic pollution

UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography researcher Jay Brandes was invited to participate in a congressional briefing titled, “The Ocean Plastic Pollution Problem: Solvable with Science Innovation, and Education.” The briefing was sponsored by the Coalition for Ocean Leadership in conjunction with the House Oceans Caucus and was held in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, June 12.

UGA Skidaway Institute scientist Jay Brandes (left) discusses marine plastics at the congressional briefing. He was joined on the panel by John Racanelli, president and CEO of the National Aquarium (center), and Scott DeFife, vice president of government affairs of the Plastics Industry Association.

Brandes has been studying the presence of microplastics in Georgia’s coastal waters and represented the research community on a three-person panel. He was joined on the panel by John Racanelli, president and CEO of the National Aquarium, and Scott DeFife, vice president of government affairs of the Plastics Industry Association.

Trash in the ocean is a growing problem. House Oceans Caucus Co-Chair, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, said that the equivalent of one garbage truck of trash enters the ocean every minute. Plastic trash in the environment is particularly detrimental due to plastic’s inherent durability and resistance to biological break down. Plastic products may also release potentially dangerous chemicals as they break down. Current estimates project 155 million tons of plastic in the ocean by 2025.

The three experts agreed that plastics in the environment is not entirely an industry issue but also a consumer problem resulting from bad behavior, such as littering, lack of recycling and the overuse of single-use plastics. It often enters the ocean from overflowing trash and recycling bins, or because waste containers are not readily available.

Brandes reported that microplastic pollution varies widely, with high concentration areas often adjacent to low concentration areas, and cautioned that understanding dynamics in one area does not translate across the globe. He stressed that including citizen scientists — engaged citizens trained by scientists to collect samples — in research could help gather more data across the world.

He pointed out that plastics are not totally resistant to biological breakdown. “If we can cut down on the source of plastic into the environment, nature will do a good job cutting down on the presence,” he said. “We’ve seen that bacteria can break down some plastics.”

Audience questions ranged from health impacts and how to talk about the issue in non-coastal states to a reduction in consumer recycling and plastic alternatives for the fishing industry. Racanelli said, “everyone is downstream from someone,” explaining that plastic in the environment effects everyone.

All panelists agreed that while more time, money and research is needed to understand the problem, the solutions should start now and involve everyone. Tiny pieces of plastic are so pervasive in Georgia’s coastal waters, researchers estimate there are more than a trillion microplastic particles and fibers in the top foot of the state’s inshore waterways.

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Skidaway Institute of Oceanography: 50 years of marine research and education

The Skidaway Institute of Oceanography was born in 1968, but the story of the institute began several years earlier with a dream of some local and state leaders to give Georgia a foothold in the burgeoning field of oceanography. In 1964, the Georgia General Assembly formed the Georgia Science Technology Commission with an Oceanographic Task Force. Two years later this task force proposed that an oceanographic research laboratory be established on the coast. That same year, the U.S. Environmental Science Services Agency decided to establish an east coast facility. State and local leaders wanted to attract the federal facility to Georgia. To that end, in 1967 the General Assembly created the Ocean Sciences Center of the Atlantic Commission (O.S.C.A).

During this same time period, two property owners on the island offered to donate land to provide a home for the facility. Robert and Dorothy Roebling, and their family had lived on the island since the mid-1930s and operated a cattle breeding facility they called Modena Plantation.

Dorothy and Robert Roebling in 1967

Skidaway Institute’s current main campus is on the former Modena Plantation. Much of the remainder of the island was owned by the Union Camp corporation, which had previously used the property to grow pine trees for wood pulp to supply their paper plant in Garden City. Union Camp donated several hundred acres, which now includes Skidaway Institute’s Priests Landing dock on the Wilmington River. Union Camp also donated the land to accommodate Skidaway Island State Park.

In the end, Georgia did not win the prize for the federal facility. It was eventually established in Miami, Fla., but the idea of an oceanographic research institution on Skidaway Island was carried forward. Skidaway Institute of Oceanography was established as part of O.S.C.A. in 1968. In 1972, Governor Jimmy Carter dissolved O.S.C.A. Skidaway Institute was then assigned to the Board of Regents as an autonomous unit of the University System of Georgia (USG.)

Skidaway Institute officially opened on July 1, 1968. The former dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering, Thomas Jackson, was the first director. He hired Herb Windom as the first faculty scientist. Windom had just completed his Ph.D. at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego. Soon others followed, including Howard Yen, who was finishing up a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech, and Jim Andrews, who was completing his doctoral work in animal nutrition from UGA.

Lee Knight, Thomas Jackson and Jim Andrews walk near the under-construction Roebling Laboratory and Administrative Building.

The early support staff was very small. Jackson brought Lee Knight with him from Georgia Tech to be assistant director. Richard Buchner handled the business office, and Bonnie Zeigler was hired as a bookkeeper and secretary.

In those first days, Skidaway Institute relied heavily on the infrastructure inherited from the Roeblings, including a sophisticated firefighting system, farm buildings and dwellings, and a machine shop with equipment still in use 50 years later.

The Roebling House today

Initially, the director and all other staff had offices in the Roeblings’ two-story schoolhouse/gymnasium now called the Roebling House.

Work began fairly quickly on the first modern office and laboratory building, later named the Dorothy R. Roebling Laboratory Building. That building was completed in 1970.

In late 1969, Skidaway Institute received a new director who would play a dominant role in shaping the course of the institute over the next 23 years. David Menzel had wide-ranging experience as a marine scientist and took the reins of Skidaway Institute after a six-year tenure at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He brought an instant visibility to Skidaway Institute with his research reputation in oceanography, and his national and international connections. Soon after his arrival at Skidaway, he started hiring several young scientists from various oceanographic graduate schools. Whether a biologist, chemist or physicist, scientists were expected to approach questions in a multidisciplinary fashion and in cooperation with others, so they looked at an issue across all the disciplines. His aim was to establish an oceanographic research group capable of addressing interdisciplinary research topics, particularly those focused on coastal oceanographic processes. Through Menzel’s efforts, the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography became one of the true pioneers of interdisciplinary coastal oceanography.

Because of his stature and connections, and the quality of the faculty he hired, Menzel was able to integrate the faculty into national and international research programs, workshops and meetings. This allowed them to network and make connections with colleagues, which often led to research collaborations that lasted decades.

Skidaway Institute research has covered the world, including sites as distant as Antarctica.

During the 1970s, much of Skidaway Institute’s research was focused on understanding biogeochemical processes and their relationship to circulation on the continental shelf, a true interdisciplinary endeavor. This has remained an underlying theme of Skidaway Institute’s research to the present day. Early research benefited from large block grants from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), later the Department of Energy (DOE). The AEC/DOE was interested in knowing the potential impacts of all things related to energy production and exploration.

Skidaway Institute scientists deploy a sediment trap.

The National Science Foundation declared the International Decade of the Ocean from 1971 to 1980. Skidaway Institute and Menzel took the lead in one major international project, the Controlled Ecosystem Pollution Experiment (CEPEX), the results of which spun off a second program — Vertical Transport and Exchange (VERTEX). These two projects provided funds that supported Skidaway Institute scientists for several years. CEPEX studied the responses of pelagic marine food chains to low and chronic levels of various contaminants. It originated with concerns about the potential impact of fossil fuel exploration and energy production, along with nuclear power production, on the marine environment. VERTEX’s goal was to determine just how much carbon in the form of phytoplankton detritus sank to the sea floor over a given period of time, aimed at a better understanding of the global carbon cycle.

In 1993, Menzel retired. Skidaway Institute’s first faculty scientist, Herb Windom, moved up to the director’s office. He began a campaign to significantly upgrade Skidaway Institute’s research fleet. The former fishing trawler, the Research Vessel Blue Fin, had limited capability and was aging. Eventually, the institute ordered the construction of the 92-foot, 300-ton R/V Savannah, which was built in Maine and arrived at Skidaway Institute in September 2001.

R/V Blue Fin

The R/V Savannah is part of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) fleet and has been utilized by Skidaway Institute scientists as well as scientists from other institutions to conduct marine research in regions as far-flung as Chesapeake Bay, the western Gulf of Mexico and the coast of South America.

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Tricia Windom christens the R/V Savannah.

R/V Savannah at the fuel dock on the Skidaway Institute campus.

In 2001 Windom retired, and Rick Jahnke was appointed acting director until Jim Sanders, who years earlier had been a graduate student at Skidaway, took over the leadership of the institute. During Sanders’s first several years as director, the institute was challenged by funding issues as the recession of 2002-3 and the “great recession” that began in 2008 cut into the institute’s state and federal funding. The reduction in funding resulted in a reduction of support staff and the elimination of Skidaway Institute’s engineering department.

During this time, however, the institute also saw an expansion of its facilities and evolution within its faculty. The long-awaited Marine and Coastal Science Research and Instructional Center, a modern laboratory research structure, was funded through a $5 million appropriation by the Georgia General Assembly in 2006 and was completed in 2009.

Marine and Coastal Science Research and Instructional Center

It provided much needed office and laboratory space. In 2008, the General Assembly approved a $1.2 million capital appropriation to replace the institute’s aging wooden main dock with a modern concrete pier and floating docks, and to renovate two other  docks. Finally, in 2015, the state approved a $3 million appropriation to extensively renovate the Institute’s iconic, circular cattle barn (a legacy of the Roebling era) into a modern space designed to provide meeting areas, teaching spaces and exhibits for the interested public—in essence, a new “front door” for Skidaway Institute.

The 2000s also saw a transition of the Skidaway Institute faculty. In addition to Windom, a number of faculty scientists who had long been the core of the institute’s research retired, including Dick Lee, Gustav Paffenhöfer, Stuart Wakeham, Rick Jahnke and Jack Blanton. (Windom, Lee and Paffenhöfer continue to be active at the institute in an emeritus status.) These retirements, along with the death of Peter Verity, created space for an influx of new and younger researchers. During Sanders’ tenure as director, 10 new members joined the Skidaway Institute faculty. Five of those new hires were women.

In 2012, after nearly 40 years as an autonomous unit of the USG, Chancellor Hank Huckaby directed that Skidaway Institute be merged into the University of Georgia. That merger became official on July 1, 2013. The director of Skidaway Institute now reports to the university’s provost’s office. Currently the faculty are all part of the Department of Marine Sciences. The merger created a fresh set of challenges, from combining accounting systems to differences in culture and mission. The educational component of Skidaway Institute’s mission grew with the acquisition. Skidaway faculty have UGA graduate students working in their labs each year, and planning is underway to provide other unique learning experiences for graduate and undergraduate students.

In 2015, Sanders announced he would be stepping down as director in 2016. Long-time faculty member Clark Alexander was appointed interim director, and in 2017, that appointment was made permanent.

Since 1968, Skidaway Institute and its scientists have shown leadership outside of academic settings as well, providing valuable guidance to state and regional planners, resource managers and industrial stakeholders. Skidaway Institute scientists have served on national, regional, state and local advisory boards for organizations such as the EPA, National Science Foundation, NOAA-Sea Grant, NOAA-National Marine Sanctuaries, Governors South Atlantic Alliance, Georgia Coastal Management Program and the Chatham County Planning Commission.

After 50 years, nearly all the faces have changed. The technology is vastly different. The challenges are different too. Yet the mission of Skidaway Institute remains the same, to create and communicate a deeper understanding of our world through leading-edge research in the marine and environmental sciences and by training tomorrow’s scientists.

Two UGA Skidaway Institute grad students receive master’s degrees

Two graduate students who conducted their research at UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography successfully defended their theses this fall and received their master’s degrees in December.

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Christine Burns (l) and Tina Walters

Tina Walters is a full-time laboratory manager for Skidaway Institute researcher Marc Frischer, and has been attending graduate school at Savannah State University on a part-time basis for several years. Her thesis, is titled “Molecular gut profiling of Dolioletta gegenbauri in the South Atlantic Bight continental shelf: What are they eating?” A chapter of the paper will be published in the journal, “Molecular Ecology, Special issue: Species Interactions, Ecological Networks and Community Dynamics.”

“The overall focus of my research was to determine the role of doliolids in the food web,” Walters said. “What do doliolids eat, and who eats them? My thesis focused on what they are eating out there in nature. I used DNA-based methods to answer that question.”

Walters earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry with a minor in physics from Armstrong Atlantic State University (now Georgia Southern University). She landed an internship at Skidaway Institute during her senior year and stayed on as a research technician after graduation.

Walters credits her advisor, Marc Frischer, for encouraging her on her journey.

“Dr. Frischer always encouraged me to pursue a master’s degree, especially with having the experience of being a lab technician,” she said. “It was time for me to start thinking like a scientist and further understand why the research that we are conducting is so important.”

Walters was also advised by former UGA Skidaway Institute professor Jens Nejstgaard, and professor Carol Pride, chair of the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences at Savannah State University.

Christine Burns is a graduate student in the UGA Department of Marine Sciences. Her thesis is titled “Historical analysis of 70 years of salt marsh change at three LTER sites.”

“I am using historical aerial imagery and charts to measure long-term changes in the saltmarsh,” Burns said. “Specifically, I’m looking at changes in the area and location of channels, ponds, interior mud flats and upland islands.

“This lets us know how these different marshes change over time and helps us to better understand how stressors such as human modifications and sea level rise influence these really important ecosystems.”

Burns studied sites that are part of the Long Term Ecological Research Network, spanning a range from Georgia to Massachusetts.

“I really enjoy mapping and using GIS,” Burns said. “This project takes my background and interest in salt marshes and pairs it with my love of maps.”

From Skidaway Island, Burns will head to Washington, D.C. She has been selected for a prestigious Knauss Fellowship and will work in the NOAA Office of Coast Survey as the Precision Navigation Fellow.

Burns was advised by UGA Skidaway Institute director Clark Alexander and UGA Department of Marine Sciences professor Merryl Alber, who is also the director of the UGA Marine Institute on Sapelo Island.

UGA Skidaway Institute scientist visits China

UGA Skidaway Institute researcher Julia Diaz recently returned from a visit to Nankai University in Tianjin, China, where she gave a guest lecture and an invited talk.

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Julia Diaz at Nankai University

Diaz was invited by a Nankai University faculty member who had been a colleague of hers when they were both post-docs at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

“It was my first time in China,” Diaz said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

She visited Beijing and the Great Wall of China.

“I was surprised how few people speak English there,” she said. “My friend set me up with a tour guide, so I had my babysitter. She told me what to eat, where to go, how to dress, everything.”

Diaz said that teaching the class was a challenge because of the language difference. She presented in English, and, while most of the students knew some conversational English, specialized technical terms presented a difficulty.

She delivered a guest lecture on “The global phosphorus cycle” and an invited talk on “Marine polyphosphate: linking the global phosphorus cycle over modern and geologic timescales.”

“It was a challenge, but a very interesting experience,” she said. “I learned a lot and will probably go back again.”

Glider partners come to the rescue during Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma presented an interesting problem to UGA Skidaway Institute scientist Catherine Edwards and other glider operators in the Southeast. They had several autonomous underwater vehicles or “gliders” deployed off the east coast as the hurricane approached, including Skidaway Institute’s glider, “Modena.” Edwards and the others were confident the gliders themselves would be safe in the water, but the computer servers that control them would not.

Catherine Edwards works on “Modena.”

The gliders are equipped with satellite phones. Periodically, they call their home server, download data and receive instructions for their next operation. It was expected that Skidaway Institute would lose power for at least several days (as did happen). However, Skidaway’s backup server partner at the University of South Florida’s marine science facility in St. Petersburg, Fla. was also directly in the storm’s projected path.

“In the week before she hit, Irma sort of blew up our hurricane emergency plans,” Edwards said.

Several other options, including Teledyne Webb’s back-up servers and Rutgers University were not feasible for technical reasons. Glider operators at Texas A&M University came to the rescue. Catherine was able to instruct “Modena” to switch its calls over the Texas A&M server. No data was lost and “Modena” continued its mission.

According to Edwards, two big lessons emerged from the experience.

“First, most of us rely on nearby or regional partners for emergency and backup support, but disasters are regional by nature, and the same Nor’easter or hurricane can take you down along with your backup,” she said. “Second, there aren’t a lot of glider centers that can absorb several gliders on a day’s notice, and there are some compatibility and operations issues involved, so it is best to identify our potential partners and build out these steps into our emergency plans well in advance.”

Skidaway Institute graduate students participate on a glider team cruise off Cape Hatteras

Skidaway Institute graduate students Kun Ma and Lixin Zhu recently joined a science cruise on the Research Vessel Savannah off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The cruise, which ran from May 31-June 5, was led by Jeffrey Book from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. The main objective of this cruise was to test and demonstrate the use of gliders together in teams and to assimilate the data into ocean forecast models. The cruise was 22 days in total, divided into three legs. Ma and Zhu were part of the third leg.

Kun Ma cocking the Niskin bottles on a Conductivity-Temperature-Depth array.

Ma is a new University of Georgia doctoral student at Skidway, working mainly on a National Science Foundation-funded photochemistry project with professors Jay Brandes and Aron Stubbins. This was her first science cruise and she collected some particulate organic matter and dissolved inorganic carbon samples. She also helped Skidaway Institute researcher Bill Savidge by collecting some chlorophyll samples in order to calibrate the chlorophyll sensor on the CTD instrument, an instrument used to collect water samples and measure those samples’ properties, such as Conductivity (a proxy for salinity), Temperature and Depth.

Lixin Zhu in immersion suit during safety trainning

Zhu is a visiting doctoral student in Aron Stubbins’s lab from East China Normal University. He collected filtered water samples on the cruise. Zhu will analyze the color and fluorescence of dissolved organic matter, and dissolved black carbon concentrations. In addition, Zhu performed solid phase extraction and collected high-resolution real-time data on colored organic matter with the underway scientific computer system on the ship. Eventually, he will combine these data with other field data collected in the South Atlantic Bight area to see the overall dynamics of dissolved black carbon.

“I am glad that we overcame seasickness, and it’s really cool to see that the glider team controlled six gliders at the same time aboard,” Zhu said. “Furthermore, their working approach and decision making process, based on real-time data, modeling and satellite results, impressed me a lot.”

Savannah Science Seminar students learn about Skidaway Institute research

A group of local high school students got an up-close look at oceanography through a special program at UGA’s Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. The students were participants in the Savannah Science Seminar, a nine-month-long program designed to promote an understanding and appreciation for science through informative, participatory presentations and hands-on workshops in the fields of engineering, technology, mathematics and medicine.

Julia Diaz profiles some of her research.

Their March 27 visit to Skidaway Institute exposed them to some of the topics studied and techniques used in marine research.

Skidaway Institute scientist Julia Diaz organized the evening’s program. After an introductory talk by researcher Jim Sanders, the students were split into three groups that rotated among three science stations.

Physical oceanographer Catherine Edwards explained the workings of autonomous underwater vehicles.

Catherine Edwards describes an AUV.

Graduate students Patrick Duffy and Sean Anderson demonstrated the new LIME imaging lab.

Patrick Duffy (2nd from right) and Sean Anderson (far right) introduce the students to cutting edge microbial imaging instruments.

Diaz and grad student Sydney Plummer discussed eutrophication and phytoplankton blooms.