Summer 2013 – 7 Questions Interview with Dr. Felicia Coleman

Felicia Coleman. Photo provided by Tracy Ippolito, DEEP-C.

Felicia Coleman. Photo provided by Tracy Ippolito, DEEP-C.

Florida State University

(From Summer 2013 Newsletter)

1. Tell us a bit about DEEP-C. What are the goals and what knowledge gaps will the program fill?

The Deep-C Consortium focuses on the interplay of the geomorphologic, hydrologic, and biogeochemical settings that influence the distribution and fate of the oil and dispersants released during the Deepwater Horizon (DwH) disaster. The overarching goals are to answer these key questions: (1) What are the magnitudes, directions, and spatial and temporal scales of hydrodynamic processes that transport particles and dissolved substances (including pollutants, nutrients, and organisms) from the deep Gulf to the Florida Panhandle shelf waters in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, and how are these influenced by canyon and shelf topography? and (2) How does the transport of these particles and dissolved substances influence geochemical, biological, and demographic processes and food web dynamics across seafloor, pelagic, and nearshore ecosystems?

The combination of earth system and food web models provides a powerful tool set that can be used to investigate and forecast environmental impact scenarios, and to assess influences of hydrocarbon releases on fisheries, tourism, and human health. And making the connection between the productivity of the region (including the impacts of hypoxia, harmful algal blooms, fishing, habitat loss, and other anthropogenic impacts) and the physical oceanography of the system is a major outcome. The models also provide an important tool for focusing on data gaps that, if filled, address substantive questions about natural resource productivity, a key to both economic and ecological health. That’s the broad view.

2. What is your background and how did that lead you to become the Scientific Director for DEEP-C?

I’m trained as a marine ecologist with emphases on physiological and behavioral ecology of fishes, with some background in both physical and biological oceanography. This expertise drew me into two arenas: the community ecology arena – trying to understand that invisible fabric of nature that is woven by the interrelationships among different species and how they are influenced by the physical milieu in which they live, and the policy arena in fisheries management through service in a number of capacities on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and other agencies responsible for managing fisheries and habitat. This interplay of interests and expertise I feel led me to develop a broader view of where all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. I think that Eric Chassignet, the Principle Investigator (PI) for the Deep-C project, and I recognized early on that our different areas of expertise complemented each other perfectly, we enjoyed interacting, and we had incredible colleagues with whom to work. That made it an easy sell for me.

3. What are the most significant and/or exciting scientific results of the DEEP-C project so far?

These are some key features:

  1. We learned that current oil detection methods are insufficient for detecting some chemicals, which can hinder our understanding of the size of a spill, our accounting for “missing” oil, and our ability to protect marine organisms that may be sensitive to specific
  2. We learned that a large amount of oil mixed with sediment and plankton (including diatoms, as revealed through DNA analysis) to form clumps (the so-called “dirty blizzard”) that sent contaminated sediments to the sea floor at 10 times the normal rate, while creating unusually clear water closer to the
  3. We learned that oil-eating microbes regularly biodegrade oil-derived compounds that occur naturally on the While they also biodegraded oil from the DwH spill, their population size is proportional to the supply of oil, with a lag time at either end. That is, when an oil spill first occurs, the oil-degrading microbial population is relatively low, not large enough to degrade the oil before it causes ecological and/or economic damage.
  4. Approximately a third of the carbon released during the DwH oil spill was Certain bacteria (methanotrophic) that are exceptionally good at absorbing or consuming methane are, in turn, eaten by plankton and other aquatic organisms. However, methane is non-toxic and does not represent a safety risk.
  5. The thousands of fish and invertebrates collected in the deep sea (200 to 2600 m depths) lead us to uncover new species, define deep-sea community structure, and understand life history traits of animals that are otherwise actually or virtually unknown to

4. Transferring information from scientists to policy makers is a topic that you’ve spent some time on. In your opinion, what are the most effective ways of accomplishing this?

Learning how to give the take-home message up front, simply, and to the point. Don’t make them wait. Don’t make them seek an interpreter. Don’t make them question what you mean. The two biggest hurdles for scientists to overcome are (1) accepting the critical role they play in the policy arena and (2) understanding the arena in which the policy maker operates. I would say that we scientists have a duty to put our science out in these arenas. Steven Schneider, the late, great climate scientist from Stanford University, said it best, “staying out of the fray is not taking the moral high ground, it’s passing the buck.” The policy maker needs to make decisions now. Give that person the best scientific advice you can so that they can make informed decisions.

5. DEEP-C has been very active in education and outreach to the public. Can you tell us about some of these activities? What role or value do you see education and outreach having within DEEP-C and GoMRI as a whole?

I would say that in addition to the policy-related work that we have done with state and federal agencies, NGOs, and politicians, we have focused on providing rich opportunities for scientists to engage teachers, graduate and undergraduate students, and K-12 students in virtual or real research. From public Café lectures and classroom visits, to hands-on instrument development, and at-sea experiences, we (the collective GOMRI we) have covered it all. Having this as a focus area has gone far to increase public understanding of where we are in terms of understanding what happened as a result of the oil spill and even increasing their appreciation of how little we knew about the Gulf, particularly in the deeper stretches.

We scientists – from GOMRI and beyond – have two critical outreach components to our jobs. One is to instill in our students, our communities, and the general public some level of the wonder and awe we feel in discovery and to transform their view of the natural world so that they understand, appreciate, and support scientific endeavors. The other, though not often communicated as such, is to put ourselves in the policy arena without waiting to be asked. If we are not doing these things, we are not doing outreach.

6. What would you like to see GoMRI accomplish over the 10 years of the program?

GoMRI is in a remarkable and unprecedented position to help push forward the integration of natural and social sciences. I would like to see that the research funded by GOMRI not only improves our understanding of this oil spill, but that it reveals how the coupled natural-human Gulf of Mexico ecosystem responds to all manner of perturbation. In so doing, GoMRI could serve as a guidepost for starting the long and complex job of reversing the environmental degradation that has gone on in the Gulf for over a century, in hopes of avoiding an irreversible tipping point.

7. If funding were not an issue, what you would add to DEEP-C? And to GoMRI?

We need to involve social scientists from disciplines ranging from history and law to economics and human health. And the data they provide needs to be integrated into our models so that the questions we ask are more realistic, so that forecasts we make are more robust. In short, what I would like to see is much greater integration across consortia and a bigger focus on the human dimension. Most of the coupling that has gone on has come about in an ad-hoc manner by individuals seeking out one another as they start to answer particular questions that require a particular knowledge base. Fine way for us to have started. But as we’ve matured, it has become painfully obvious that we need a concerted effort to move this approach forward. We can’t ignore this because the size of the human footprint on the Gulf . . . on the planet . . . is profound.

[Back to the Summer 2013 Newsletter]