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One of the talks that has stuck in my mind from the conference was a talk given by Jack Gilbert entitled “Creating a Predictive Model of Microbially Mediated Carbon Remediation in the Gulf of Mexico”. Gilbert spoke about the Earth Microbiome Project, and its goal to analyze microbial populations around the world in an effort to “produce a global Gene Atlas describing protein space, environmental metabolic models for each biome, approximately 500,000 reconstructed microbial genomes, a global metabolic model, and a data-analysis portal for visualization of all information.”
By sampling at various points around the globe or within a certain region and analyzing the community profile and functional gene potential of each sample, variance modeling can be employed to gain insight into the microbial populations and their affluence on the environment, as well as the reciprocal effects that the environment has on the microbial community.
Gilbert illustrated one application of the variance modeling and told us that after analyzing microbial communities from samples gathered in the English Channel, they were able to generate data on the partial pressure of CO2 in the English Channel as a function of time, based on their knowledge of the microbial populations in certain areas at a specific time point. The Variance modeling employed allowed for extrapolation of the sampled points across the English Channel space as well as over the course of a year and including the effects of seasonal changes. The data generated by the model gave CO2 values that were in agreement (around 94%) with the CO2 data released by UNESCO for the same time periods. So cool!
The Earth Microbiome Project has since received 800 sediment samples from the Gulf of Mexico collected between May 2010 and May 2012. After analysis of these samples, the researchers are hoping to use variance modeling to help predict the effects of microbial populations on carbon remediation in the Gulf. Through this research they hope to learn more about the microbial degradation of hydrocarbon throughout the Gulf region and the effects on the carbon cycle, as well as providing insights into interesting places and times of the year for people to sample that might yield novel microbial communities and species.
I found this project fascinating, and although the modeling aspects are beyond my understanding, the biological applications were really cool! It was great being challenged by new concepts and topics outside the specific area that I am focusing on for my senior research. All in the all, the conference was a huge success and a great learning opportunity!
For those die-hard lab blog readers out there, you may have noticed that I have bounced around quite a bit in my research focus. I’ve dabbled in marine natural products with the Smithsonian, spent a summer investigating organic atmospheric aerosol, and now for my senior project, I’m hunting for and characterizing the polar components of oil and dispersants in marine sediments and sand patties. I had no idea that there was any overlap between atmospheric chemistry and the oil spill, my two most recent ventures—and then I went to an amazing talk given by Tom Ryerson, a researcher at NOAA’s Aeronomy Laboratory in Colorado.
Ryerson presented how he and his team measured the spill related compounds evaporating into the atmosphere following the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in 2010. They did this with some instrumentation fitted onto an aircraft and a simple flight pattern over the spill site. Combining these atmospheric measurements with the composition of the oil and gas flowing from the burst wellhead 1500 m beneath the surface, Ryerson was actually able to calculate the flow rate from the wellhead. FROM THE AIR. As if this wasn’t amazing enough, Ryerson and his team actually repeated the flight pattern and measurements over the leaking Elgin oil and gas platform in the North Sea last spring. The Elgin platform, at the time of its leak, provided 9% of the UK’s natural gas, and Ryerson’s efforts were pivotal in the successful response effort to cap the leak. Ryerson and his team have shown that offshore blowouts can be monitored safely and quickly from the air, and undoubtedly, their work will have a major impact for first responders to offshore blowouts.
I had the chance to speak with Dr. Ryerson after his presentation and saluted him on his amazing research. In our conversation, it quickly became apparent that atmospheric chemistry, in his mind, is the final frontier in environmental chemistry. So maybe, just maybe, the White Lab will revisit the aerosol project Alyssa, Zach, and I began a few years ago.
I enjoyed hearing about the science that’s being conducted, both in similar fields and outside of the research that I’ve been working on. Unfortunately we flew out the day of the session most relevant to my work, so I missed most of the talks about the concurrent research that’s happening on my project, but I did get to talk to a variety of people about my work during the poster session and received a wealth of useful and interesting feedback. However, I found the talks on public health extremely interesting (don’t tell Helen). For one, seafood in the Gulf is safe to eat! They haven’t found traces of toxic contaminants at levels of concern for human health in fish, oyster, crab, or shrimp samples for months since reopening the fisheries in the Gulf. That said, I still see room for improvement. It was interesting to compare the science and public health talks: A number of the scientific presentations showed data about the components of oil that people haven’t traditionally looked at when studying and discussing the effects of oil on the environment, while the public health talks tended to present data on the compounds that have been known and studied extensively (PAHs). It was very apparent to me that more studies need to be conducted about the toxicity and effects of these other oil components to truly determine food safety and the impact on humans.
Just a little taste of NOLA for you!
The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Conference was packed with good food, great people, and more science than you can shake a stick at. Days began at 8:30 a.m. with talks or a poster session and continued to 6:30 p.m. with various breaks for lunch, coffee, and necessary stretching and walking around. There were some serious marine chemistry superheroes at the GoM conference and it has been amazing to see and talk with people that I cite on a regular basis. More importantly we finally met the Reddy lab from WHOI. We have been trading samples back and forth for analysis since the summer and we finally got to see all of them.
The speakers were great and (dare I say?) exhausting. Each speaker has 15 minutes to present their research question, subsequent findings, and then any conclusions. This happened for 2 hours at a time. There sheer bulk of information was amazing. There were numerous talks directly related to the research we are doing in lab right now, and it was really helpful to listen and talk with people about what they are working on, the problems they encountered, and how they dealt with them to better focus our own work.
Day one (Monday) I spent going back and forth between talks on time series, dispersants, analytical methods, and ocean modeling. Day two (Tuesday) was spent exclusively in talks devoted to new analytical methods (chaired by Chris Reddy of WHOI). These presentations were helpful, not just because of the information given, but also in figuring out how best to go forward and present my own work. I presented my poster at the evening session and spoke to a ton of people, not just about my own work, but how it dovetailed into others’ work as well. Because the polar components of oil are so hard to measure, our work is actually pretty novel and exciting within the scientific community!
The entire trip was a great mixture of formal lecture-style presentations and causal conversations (with the casual heated argument about methods and final conclusions thrown in just for fun). Too bad Pennsylvania winter looks nothing like Burbon Street…
The conference has been exciting to say the least. We’ve been listening to presentations non-stop from 8:30 to 12:30, hopping back and forth between 5 or more rooms with speakers giving talks on a range of subjects from microbiology to dispersants to public health, and trying to catch some of the talks we think are relevant or interesting. Then we’ve been walking in hordes to grab lunch (platefuls of delicious meat for me!) with new science friends, and rushing back in time to make the 2:15 talks. And again, we found ourselves snaking between talks, trying to get the timing right for the speakers we want to hear, until 4:30. At that point we pick up some of the giant chocolate chip cookies and decadent chocolate brownies and head on our way to the poster presentations. Then we join the swarms and buzzing of the poster hall and walk around hearing about all the new and exciting research being conducted on and about the spill, and at some time around 7 our group heads out to get dinner. Then repeat.
Our latest lab adventure began on early Sunday morning after we all shook off our winter hibernation and flew to New Orleans for the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference. I bumped into Pat on my flight from Charlotte to New Orleans, and once on the ground in NOLA, Pat and I caught up with Katie and Liz over fried chicken and gumbo and waited for our fearless leader, Helen White, to arrive from the California coast. We spent the afternoon taking in the city and plotting which talks and posters to see at the conference, and rounded off the day with dinner at a nearby diner with scandalously good pecan pie.
Dawn arrived, and to prepare for a long day of talks we marched to Café Du Monde for a breakfast of beignets and strong coffee: a breakfast of champions. Dr. Rita Colwell opened the conference and impressed upon us the importance of interdisciplinary action following the spill. Admiral Thad Allen, who led the response effort to the 2010 oil spill, also reflected on his experiences as the National Incident Commander, which included some impressive one-on-one conversations with that other Commander onboard Air Force One.
The past two days have been busy in the best possible sense. I have been bouncing from talk to talk, and from poster to poster, soaking up all I possibly can about the poorly understood polar oil and dispersants, the twin foci of my thesis project. It’s been amazing to meet the faces behind papers I have been reading and to watch disagreements unfold in heated Q&A sessions.
Tomorrow, Katie and Liz will present their posters, and shortly thereafter we will make our way back to the Ford, and hopefully we can bring a little Gulf warmth with us!
After a bright and early start in the four different cities from which each member of the White lab travelled, Helen, Sarah, Pat, Katie and I finally congregated in the New Orleans airport around the Falcons vs. 49ers game. We made it safely to the hotel, put up our posters and began looking around for familiar faces and perusing schedules for the names of all the people whose papers we may have read since becoming involved in the White lab.
The conference so far has been amazing: so much information to assimilate, so many people to meet, so much good food to eat, and so much to do packed into a single day. For all those wondering, this conference is not for the weak of heart! We are in talks from 8:30 am through 6:00 pm, with two short breaks for coffee and snacks a longer respite for some lunch and a short venture outside of the hotel. Even though the majority of our time is spent indoors and wandering from one oral presentation or poster session to another, the experience has been incredible, and completely different from any other conference I have ever been to (which of course is limited to the Haverford and Swarthmore research symposia). I’ve learned new things in so many different areas– geochemistry, physics, microbiology, modeling methods, public health, chemistry, charismatic marine megafauna; there is so much multidisciplinary research going on that at times it is overwhelming!
I have had the chance to see people whose names have appeared again and again in the papers supporting my research, have had to draw up the courage to go up to and introduce myself to those people, and even enjoyed lunch and dinner with some of the big names in oil-related research. And since audacity and boldness do not stop at meeting people and one must also try new things in new places, I can also say that I ventured out on a limb to sample alligator and frog legs for dinner, all decked out with cajun goodness. And they were delicious.
I’ve had the last two days to figure out how this whole conference thing works, but tomorrow it is my turn to kick of the day presenting my poster. Wish me luck!
It’s crazy to think that summer is already coming to an end… I feel like I just got here! The last 4 weeks have been filled with coral, country (!!), Si-gel, and the rotovap. Can’t wait to come back in a month and pick up right where I left off! Although there weren’t as many cats as last summer, I do plan on turning lab into a jungle of sorts. There’s only so much you can do when you’re waiting for things to dry…