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Putting a Face with a Name – – Written by Leandra Darden

Science is a unique profession because your career is based almost solely on your name. As a student you have to read many scientific papers and it is easy to forget that the author of that paper is still a person. These researchers have ambitions, passions, families, and people who have helped them along the way. The Coastal Waters Consortium has many researchers at all levels and we wanted to feature some of them to show off not just their work, but their personalities as well.

Dr. Gregory Olson is a Research Associate II in the Response and Chemical Assessment Lab under Dr. Ed Overton. Currently Dr. Olson is working on sediment analysis for trace crude oil components as well as biomarker analysis and fingerprinting for specific crude oils.

Dr. Olson reports, “One of the more surprising things I have seen is the resiliency of sequestered oil in coastal marshes. Some of the samples we analyze show signs of delayed weathering. This has impacted my work with utilizing oil fingerprinting techniques to get a better idea of what kind of oil we are seeing in these samples.”

His work for Dr. Overton has not only helped understand the oil Dr. Overton’s lab is studying, but clarify some things for other researchers within the CWC. As scientists it can be difficult to explain to family members and friends what they do for a living. Often the people close to them have a vague understanding of they day to day life at work. Dr. Olson’s family believes he makes “environmental tea” and then runs it on the CSI (TV show) machine looking for pollutants. According to Dr. Olson this explanation “is not too far from the truth!”greglab (1)

Every job has its highlights and for Dr. Olson “field sampling is my favorite part of the job. I love being out on the water all day, cannot beat fresh air and sunshine!”. It is this part of the job for many field scientists. The part that gets them through the days when they have to process samples inside. Dr. Olson agrees saying “my least favorite part of the job is sample analysis, strictly speaking. It is fun when discovering something new or interesting but over time the process can get mundane. Integrating the same 75 odd compounds per sample for batches of 30, 50, or 100 samples can get tiresome.” All scientists agree that even though proces
sing samples can get tedious it is always exciting to realize that you have found something interesting.

Science is often a fine balance of planning and adapting to situations. This means that field science has a level of unpredictability that leads to some pretty interesting stories. For Dr. Olson recalls a time when “…I was out with another research assistant going to collect samples. It wasn’t until after we put the boat in the water that we realized we forgot to replace the drain plug! We scrambled to get it in place as our boat was taking on water. Luckily we were able to do so rather quickly and the boat was no worse for wear.”

It is always important for us to appreciate all of our hardworking scientists at the Coastal Waters Consortium! Dr. Gregory Olson is only one example of the great people that we have working on the questions of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Marsh Madness

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) has written an article that focuses on our Marsh Madness event. Every year the CWC scientists, researchers and techs get together for a all hands-on-deck sampling event. It is a great way for our scientists to stay connected and get the data needed to answer our questions. Click the link below to read the full story.

http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/marsh-madness-is-seldom-in-march/

Unsung Heroes of Science

As you get older and learn more about science you realize that science is an intense and complicated series of failures and triumphs. Field biologists run into roadblocks in both the lab and the field. In CWC oil spill research we have principal investigators (PIs), who lead projects and manage teams of researchers. But just like Gru cannot steal the moon without help, neither can any of our PIs run their labs or complete their research without help. This help comes in many forms such as peers, undergrad and graduate students, as well as, research assistants. The part of being a scientist that isn’t shown on National Geographic is that you often have to travel to meetings, fill out endless forms, manage budgets, and continue to write grants. While the PIs are traveling or busy with other aspects of the job, their labs must continue to function. Thanks to some amazing people this is done without missing a step. Amanda Fontenot and Hillary Sullivan are research assistants in labs and it is their job to make sure that data, and experiments continue without direct oversight of the PI.

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Amanda Fontenot is a research assistant in Dr. Nancy Rabalais’ lab. Her job duties means she can either be out on the R/V Pelican in the Gulf of Mexico, the marsh, or in the lab. When she was growing up she knew that she always liked science so when she was searching for a job she decided to try the scientific field. She took a chance and emailed Dr. Rabalais to see if there were any openings in her lab. Seven years later she has worked her way up through the lab.

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One of her responsibilities is to management data coming from 2 weather stations located at LUMCON and Terrebonne Bay. The weather stations take data every 15 minutes and it is Amanda’s job to check that data to make sure they are accurate. If something is off or not within normal limits she has to go out to the station and fix the problem. Not only does Amanda manage these data but she also helps to collect data out in the marsh. Amanda never knew just how dirty and covered in mud you could get. The mud is actually one of the things that she loves most about her job. Her advice to future assistance is namely to have an enthusiastic “go do it” attitude. No matter what they ask you to do, from prepping for field work; to diving into the marsh to rescue a piece of equipment, you have to be prepared and willing to do the task. One of the talents you need as a research assistant is knowing how to think on your feet. Often during field work things happen like having a piece of equipment begin to fail and it is up to you to try to fix the problem as best you can in the field.

Hillary Sullivan is a research assistant in Dr. Brian Robert’s lab. Her job responsibilities includes more lab work than Amanda. One of her main duties is to process water and soil samples that were collected in the field. She was drawn to this job because it was an opportunity for a research based job that also allowed her to have a better understanding of the salt marshes. Hillary has been learning how to run different machines that take samples and provide data about nitrogen, carbon and other chemical processes

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. One of Hillary’s favorite parts is the fact that she gets to go out to collect samples about twice a month. In the field the team collects soil samples, water samples, and do clip plots for above ground and below ground biomass. Some of their experiments are time sensitive. As soon as they come back from an exhausting day in the field, the team has to start running experiments run in the lab with the samples they collected that day. All of these things mean that there are occasionally some 14 to 15 hour days. Like Amanda, Hillary never thought that she could get as dirty as she does in the salt marsh. And just like Amanda, it is one of the things that she loves about this job. While samples are running, or the occasional down time, Hillary is also responsible for cleaning and maintaining the lab. This means cleaning glassware, keeping the equipment maintained and calibrated, and keeping the lab benches ready for the next use. Cleaning glassware is definitely something that has to happen early and often because the lab uses so many for experiments and fieldwork. Hillary believes that to be a great research assistant you have to have a willingness to learn and try new things.

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Amanda, Hillary and many more research assistants are important parts of what makes our CWC labs successful. They provide extra hands in the field, and can hold down the fort when the PIs have other obligations. It is because of their hard work and support that we have the opportunity to learn so much more about science.

So a sincere thank you to all the unsung heroes of science.