Featured student: Sarah Harrison

Featured student: Sarah Harrison
Sarah Harrison on board the R/V Endeavor in 2015. (c) ECOGIG

March 18, 2015

What is your educational background? I graduated in May 2013 from Haverford College, a small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia, with a degree in Chemistry and a minor in Classics. I began at the University of Georgia this past summer, and am working towards my doctorate in Marine Sciences under the guidance of Prof. Samantha Joye.

Where are you from, and how does it compare/contrast to your current location? I grew up on my family’s cattle ranch in Florida. It was a special place to grow up, to say the least. My family has been committed to merging responsible agricultural practices with environmental stewardship, and the result is a landscape dotted with cattle and rich in native flora and fauna: alligators, white-tailed deer, coyotes, sand hill cranes, Osceola turkeys, cypress swamps, and old growth oak hammocks. It’s not what most people think of when they think of Florida, but to me it’s home. And while I love the solitude of home, I have found living in Athens quite wonderful so far. Everywhere I go, I seem to trip over good food or stumble upon amazing music!

What aspects of your life, education, etc., led you to become a scientist and drew you to the research you are doing now? While growing up, I distinctly remember the dim glow on the night sky’s horizon getting brighter every year as nearby towns grew. Beach highrises and endless construction accompanied this light pollution, as my county’s population nearly doubled within 20 years, mirroring the growth that happened all across south Florida. Even at a young age, I realized that this development stood in sharp contrast with my family’s commitment to environmental stewardship. The impacts of this expanding development ranged from the ridiculous, like the odd alligator in a neighborhood swimming pool, to the troubling, including toxic algal blooms. While I found many of these changes troubling, I felt like there was little I could do to help. It was not until after I reached college that the light bulb went off: science can be a vital tool for environmental stewardship. I had this epiphany while working under Prof. Helen White at Haverford College, studying the persistence of oil and chemical dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil, itself, is something I find absolutely fascinating. It is a substance whose discovery and commercial applications have completely changed the world. It drives so much of our economy and political landscape, yet our understanding of how oil functions ecologically remains cloudy at best. There is so much more to learn about this so-called “black gold”. In the wake of the largest offshore oil spill in history and as we move farther offshore and into the Arctic in search of oil and natural gas, now is the time to answer those questions.

How did you become involved in ECOGIG? While attending the first Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) Conference in 2013, I witnessed the benefits of working within one of the GoMRI consortia. The research within ECOGIG, like the other GoMRI consortia, is inherently interdisciplinary, allowing for a greater understanding of the dynamic processes at work in the marine environment. I sought out a lab involved in a consortium for my graduate career, and knew that Dr. Joye’s group at UGA would be an excellent fit for me. I joined the Joye Lab this past summer and have already benefited from the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the research.

What is your role and specific research in the ECOGIG project? I am interested in studying the evolution of oil in marine and coastal environments, the phenomenon more commonly known as weathering. Oil is a complex mixture comprised of saturated and aromatic hydrocarbons, resins, and asphaltenes, and within each of these classes, there are thousands of compounds. It cannot be expected that all of these compounds behave the same way in the environment. Some are easily degraded by bacteria, some can be transformed through photo-oxidation, but the ultimate fate of most compounds remains unknown. I hope to begin disentangling the impact of these weathering events on oil and to ultimately understand how oil’s chemical composition is related to its journey through the environment.

Have you been involved in other projects and if so, how does your experience working in the ECOGIG program compare with your other research experiences? The scale of research within ECOGIG is much bigger than anything I have been a part of thus far. Much of the work I did before was within a single lab, with maybe a collaborator or two, but to have so many colleagues working on the same problem from different perspectives is quite an experience!

What is the history of your cruise participation, ECOGIG or otherwise? I just returned from my first ECOGIG cruise on the RV Pelican last month, where we collected water and deep-sea sediment from two sites in the Gulf of Mexico. In June 2013, I went on a CARTHE cruise onboard the RV Pelican to collect deep-sea sediment from the Orca Basin in the Gulf of Mexico.

What do you like most about working at sea? I’ve always loved being on the water, and I find going to sea so refreshing. Yes, I often find myself covered with mud and salt, too tired to think straight, but more often I’m thinking about how my samples fit into the bigger picture. It is quite easy to lose perspective after staring at chromatograms for hours on end. But when I have a sample in my hand and a glimpse of the environment where it came from, I feel like it adds so much to my understanding about what kind of differences I might see between samples and why these differences might exist.

What, if any, novel or unique findings have you had? During my undergraduate research, I successfully developed a method to extract dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (DOSS). DOSS is the chief surfactant in Corexit 9500, the chemical dispersant applied in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Developing this method was the first step in a much longer process of extracting and testing environmental samples from across the Gulf. We ultimately were able to detect DOSS in deep-sea sediments, in flocculent material found on deep-sea corals near the site of the blowout, and in oil-soaked sand patties from Gulf Coast beaches. This project opened my eyes to the importance of understanding the chemical properties of highly complex mixtures as a way to trace their fate and evolution in the environment.

What do you see as your major contributions to the ECOGIG program?  I hope to gain a more cohesive understanding of how oil weathers, but I know that this process is not happening in a vacuum. There are other key factors in such a dynamic process, and I know that my work will help to fill in some gaps in our current understanding of the biogeochemical landscape of the Gulf.

Is there anything else you would like to say about your ECOGIG involvement and its effect on your science? I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with such an amazing group of scientists, especially as a first-year graduate student. I feel that my involvement in ECOGIG has jump-started my graduate career, as I am already involved in several exciting projects. I am thrilled to see what ECOGIG will do in the coming years!

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