‘Labors of Love’
With a $202,902 grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, biology professor Anne Bernhard will work with a team of researchers to explore the effects of the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the salt marshes that line the Louisiana coast.
Bernhard is part of a group of two dozen researchers, led by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, that will be examining the effects of the spill on Louisiana's coastal ecosystems for the next three years. The group was one of eight selected to win a total of $112.5 million in grants from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Research Board, an independent body established by BP to administer the company's 10-year, $500 million commitment to independent research into the effects of the recent oil spill.
"A lot of research done after the spill was focused on the open ocean," Bernhard said. "We are focusing on the coastline, and specifically on the salt marshes. We want to understand what happens to these critical ecosystems after an oil spill, find the most vulnerable communities and identify steps we might be able to take in the future to mitigate the damages."
Bernhard, the George and Carol Milne Associate Professor of Biology at Connecticut College, specializes in microbial ecology of estuaries and salt marshes. She will work with Anne Giblin, a researcher with the Marine Biological Laboratory, and Brian Roberts, a researcher with LUMCON, to examine the effects of the oil spill on the marshes' microbial populations. Bernhard said little research has been done on the effects of oil on these microscopic organisms that, while tiny, play a vital role in the recycling of nutrients that support entire ecosystems.
"It is easy to see that a bird is covered in oil, but we don't really know what happens when oil settles on the floor of these marshes," Bernhard said.
The funding will allow Bernhard to analyze samples from the Louisiana coastline and provide for two undergraduate student researchers to work with her each summer during the three-year research project. Bernhard also plans to have students in her molecular ecology classes analyze the samples from her research to maximize student exposure to this critical and timely research.
"This project is something that students can relate to," Bernhard said. "They watched the oil spill unfold, and this will help them see first-hand the relevance of this type of research."
For Bernhard, the project is a natural extension of her previous research, which has focused on understanding the nitrogen cycle in salt marshes and the factors that affect it. "One of the reasons we study these processes is to be able to predict what might happen if the ecosystem is disturbed - and one of the things that can disturb it is an oil spill," she said.
Bernhard added that she is also in the planning phase of another research project with two Connecticut College colleagues to examine the effects of climate change - another factor that disturbs these ecosystems - on salt marshes. Being part of the consortium working on the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative project also has Bernhard excited.
"This grant is a really great opportunity for me and my students to work with some of the biggest names in coastal ecology - people whose work I am familiar with, but whom I've never had the privilege of meeting in person," she said.