Thursday, December 14, 2017
Education

Oil spill put USF marine science program in the spotlight

If there is some small silver lining in the worst environmental disaster in our nation's history, consider the University of South Florida.

When BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded two years ago, sending hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the university's quiet, 100-student marine science program in St. Petersburg was thrust into the spotlight like never before.

Ready with a boat and researchers, it was one of the first entities to venture out and study the spill, cementing the university in the public consciousness as the go-to expert in the disaster's wake.

Faculty members appeared on TV stations and in newspaper headlines everywhere from here to Kathmandu. They traveled to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress. They raked in millions in new grants to continue studying the disaster's implications. Graduate student applications surged.

"Nobody wants that kind of opportunity, but since it's there to take advantage of, it is a good thing," said Karen Holbrook, USF's senior vice president for research, innovation and global affairs. "I think it's done a lot for the university."

• • •

The phone rang.

It was the night of April 20, 2010, and Bill Hogarth, then dean of USF's marine science program, was at home. It was late. Something was wrong.

"There's been a disaster," said the voice on the line. "There's a lot of oil."

It was Steve Murawski, a scientist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration who later joined USF's faculty. He had just heard about the oil rig explosion that killed 11 men, injured more than a dozen others and sent oil seeping into the sea.

Stuck in Japan for a conference, Murawski wanted researchers around the gulf to start taking water samples, before the oil had a chance to spread.

Hogarth started rounding up professors and students, finding plenty of unpaid volunteers for what's usually a quiet exam week.

"It was people who knew people and knew what expertise was around and trying to put it together," Hogarth recalled.

In the months that followed, USF would tell the world about underwater oil plumes far worse than government officials were reporting.

They would track the oil as it spread toward the coast. They would sift through tar balls on beaches that BP cleanup efforts left behind.

They would turn to the fish, finding damage there, too.

"Nobody understood the extent at the time," Murawski said.

"It was never a dull moment," Hogarth said.

• • •

The oil leak was long ago plugged and the spill is largely gone from the headlines, but USF has not slowed down.

The continued research has brought about increased cooperation with other universities, states and countries — including Canada, the Netherlands and Germany.

In August a group led by USF researchers was awarded $11 million from BP, part of the $500 million the company promised to spend over 10 years for independent scientific studies on the disaster.

There has also been an uptick in graduate student applications. More than 100 have applied this year for just a couple of dozen new spots.

"It's like this sleepy little college was awoken by this," Hogarth said.

Of course no one wanted the disaster to happen, but it did, Hogarth said, and USF was ready. In return, the school got more publicity, acclaim and clout among the scientific community than it could have asked for.

The TV exposure alone during that time would have cost USF about $10 million, the school estimates.

"The oil spill helped raise the visibility of the school," said Jackie Dixon, current dean of the marine science program. "That recognition means a permanent increase in the reputation of the college and university."

It also exposed students to an ultimate hands-on experience.

"I think there will be work as a result of this for a long time," said Holbrook.

• • •

There is plenty to do, said Murawski and Hogarth.

Even with all the research that has been done, many of the spill's effects are still unknown. Neither researcher thinks there's an adequate monitoring system available for deepwater wells. Neither feels comfortable with existing safeguards.

"We've got to be prepared," Hogarth said. "I'm just not sure we are."

Both mentioned spills that have happened since — in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Nigeria and Venezuela.

They also both mentioned plans, across the globe, to drill more.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.

Comments
Hernando could be next stop for PACE Center for Girls

Hernando could be next stop for PACE Center for Girls

BROOKSVILLE — The new year could bring about new beginnings for at-risk girls in Hernando County.Pending a vote by the School Board next month, PACE Center for Girls, an alternative education program for middle- and high-school students, could open a...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Pasco school district, employees reach contract agreement

The raises for Pasco County school district employees aren’t as high as anyone would like, but they’re now part of a signed tentative contract deal reached just before 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.If ratified by the staff and the School Board, the agreements ...
Published: 12/13/17
For Bexley students in Land O’Lakes, math skills go airborne

For Bexley students in Land O’Lakes, math skills go airborne

LAND O’LAKES — At Bexley Elementary School in Land O’Lakes, students are throwing paper airplanes — with the help of a high tech computerized launcher. They’re also bowling — with a little aid from computerized drones. And when they get around to it,...
Published: 12/13/17

Proposal to rollback early learning programs could bring Citrus into Pasco-Hernando coalition

Some Florida lawmakers have not hidden their desire to scale back the statewide number of early learning coalitions that oversee child care and preschool programs, including Voluntary Prekindergarten.The state Office of Early Learning has now issued ...
Published: 12/13/17
Pasco-Hernando State College faculty to consider unionizing

Pasco-Hernando State College faculty to consider unionizing

Caitlin Gille grew up in a union household in Wisconsin, where her mom was a long-time teacher in the small city of Wauwatosa, just west of Milwaukee.She was accustomed to seeing educators advocating for their working conditions and pay, having a sea...
Published: 12/12/17
Updated: 12/13/17
Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2017 is ‘Feminism’

Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2017 is ‘Feminism’

NEW YORK — This may or may not come as a surprise: Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2017 is "feminism." Yes, it’s been a big year or two or 100 for the word. In 2017, lookups for feminism increased 70 percent over 2016 on Mer...
Published: 12/12/17
Book tasting event lets Fox Chapel students indulge their love of reading

Book tasting event lets Fox Chapel students indulge their love of reading

SPRING HILL — As she perused the book, something about Night of the Living Worms piqued sixth-grader Inessia Richardson’s interest. So she decided to take it home from the Fox Chapel Middle School library.The opportunity to look at Night of the Livin...
Updated: 27 minutes ago
‘It’s like an insane nightmare’: Parents question private company hired to drive special needs kids to school

‘It’s like an insane nightmare’: Parents question private company hired to drive special needs kids to school

RIVERVIEW — As a foster parent with two sons of her own, Kayla Storey has learned all the tricks to get her kids out of bed and off to school every morning. But this year, Storey says she’s the one waking up every school day with a knot i...
Published: 12/08/17
Updated: 12/11/17

University of Central Florida Greeks won’t hold social events, serve alcohol for 6 weeks this spring

ORLANDO — University of Central Florida fraternities and sororities won’t host social activities or any events with drinking for at least the first six weeks of the spring semester, up from the two-week ban on alcohol that has been in place in the pa...
Published: 12/08/17

Pasco class notes for Dec. 15

School Calendar• Dec. 22: End of second grading quarter.• Dec. 23-Jan. 7: Winter Break.• Jan. 8: Teacher planning day. No school for students.Arts/Music/TheaterCenter for the Arts at River Ridge Middle High, 11646 Town Center Road, New Port Richey. (...
Published: 12/07/17
Updated: 12/13/17