A tale of two Gulf spills: A research consortium of 17 institutions from 5 countries studying the impacts of oil spills on the Gulf of Mexico.
'Why does the deep sea matters?' can be answered differently depending on who you ask. If you ask Travis Washburn, PhD student at Harte Research Institute/Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, he'll describe nutrients moving up through the food web, and ecosystem services of communities living in the sediments - the main topic of his research with Dr. Paul Montagna.
Travis looks to take a seemingly isolated region, the deep ocean benthic communities, and link it to human benefits and the impact of future spills to the seafloor. Travis' work makes him the C-IMAGE Student of the Month for January 2016.
What is your research focused on, how will your results contribute to improve understanding of oil spills? (What are your research questions?)
My research is focused on assessing how the Deepwater Horizon blowout affected benthic communities in the deep Gulf of Mexico as well as effects of natural seepage. I am also looking at specific benefits that the deep-sea communities provide humans, such as trophic transfer of nutrients and chemicals up the food chain or pollutant burial. My results should prove very useful in determining the extent and effects of future deep-sea blowouts on the seafloor. They will also show if and how human-caused hydrocarbon releases differ from areas where hydrocarbons naturally enter the environment. The examination of ecosystem services provided by the deep-sea will try to partly answer the question “Why does the deep sea matter” as well as help to put some value on damages there.
What path did you take to make it to where you are now? Bachelors degree, internship experience, working experience?
I came to Harte in 2011 after completing a Masters degree in Charleston, SC. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in biology and marine science from the University of Alabama and went on to do my Masters at the College of Charleston. I did not have an advisor or project going into Charleston, but I knew that I wanted to focus on ecology. Due to funding and logistics my thesis became a focus on benthic communities which I had interestingly never thought of working on before. However, my focus then was on coastal development, and I knew that I wanted to focus on much deeper waters. I started working for NOAA in Charleston immediately after graduating and worked there for three years trying to create a taxonomy laboratory focusing on coastal macrobenthos. Then the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil blowout occurred. My boss at NOAA was tapped for offshore studies involving the blowout and by sheer chance I ended up taking part in the benthic sampling for the DWH event and was basically the lead on one vessel for benthic fauna sampling. During this cruise I had the opportunity to talk with Paul Montagna who was analyzing these samples. I knew that funding was available for me to work on deep-sea samples at Harte, and I even knew what samples were available since I helped collect many of them. Thus I came to Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi to work at the Harte Research Institute.
What initially interested you in studying at Harte Research Institute/ TAMU-CC?
I came to work at the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi because I wanted to do my Ph.D. on deep-sea benthic ecology and work with Dr. Paul Montagna. I came to appreciate all the questions that could be answered by benthic communities during my Masters degree and have always been interested in the mystery of the deep sea. I fortuitously hitched a ride on one of the NOAA benthic sampling cruises after the Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in 2010, and the samples we collected were going to Paul. Projects in the deep sea are few and hard to come by, so I jumped at the opportunity and have quickly grown to appreciate the collaborative and applied nature of the research at Harte.
What research tasks are you completing today (or this week)? Preparations for any upcoming conferences?
This week I am actually taking part in an advanced workshop using the Primer statistical package. Primer is very useful for analyzing data sets with many variables such as community structure. Nine hour days in front of the computer may not sound ideal, but I am really looking forward to using some of the new tricks I am learning to take a crack at some pretty complicated data for my Ph.D. I am planning on using PRIMER as well as another statistical program SAS to begin to describe macrobenthic communities associated with natural hydrocarbon seeps and eventually compare these communities to areas near the DWH wellhead. I will be attending the Oil Spill and Ecosystem Conference in the beginning of February. I have prepared a poster showing macrobenthic taxa which may be useful as indicators of deep-water blowouts or background conditions. These results are fresh out of the stats package, and I am excited to further our understanding of the impacts of deep-sea blowouts.
Which of your findings or research has been most eye-opening? Were there any moments or facts that just made you say "Wow! I did not expect that."?
If All Time- I would definitely have to say that the most eye-opening research I have done so far was the beginning of my Masters work looking at the effects of watershed development on estuarine benthos. Up until that point my plan had always been to work on big fish or sharks, it is hard to even imagine now. But as I talked with my advisor, did research, and spent plenty of time in the field I came to realize that benthic animals can answer so many questions we have about the environment. As Paul Montagna always says, “there are 2 constants in life, death and gravity,” and everything sinking to the seafloor makes benthos ideal for examining what is going on above them.
At Harte- My work on ecosystem services of the deep sea has been very eye-opening. I have always focused on questions that can be answered by scientific research and why the questions were important to people; however, I never gave much consideration to why the environment itself was important to people. It was very easy to take for granted that science and the environment are just important, especially when you make a career out of them. When my advisor asked me why people should care about the deep sea I was at first somewhat at a loss for words. After doing plenty of research on ecosystem services I gained a whole new appreciation for what nature provides humans and a totally different way to help answer and interpret ecological problems. And I can honestly say that I had no clue how many benefits nature provide or how much money it would cost to perform even a fraction of what it does.
Cover Photo: Travis Washburn and Noe Barrera sample a core from the southern Gulf of Mexico while studying Ixtoc-I aboard the R/V Justo Sierra (Photo Credit: Center for Integrated Modelling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems)