Campus Life

UWF graduate students are key players in oil spill research

One day each week, Dane Smith, a University of West Florida graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science, loads up and heads south for the beach.

But his truck isn’t carrying a surfboard: It’s filled with bottles, beakers and scientific equipment he’ll use this summer while collecting water samples from the Gulf of Mexico for research involving the ongoing oil spill.

Smith and Matthew Schwartz, a UWF Environmental Studies associate professor and oceanographer, are sampling for a combination of dissolved nutrients found naturally in sea water whose levels will change as the presence of oil and oil components increase. Their project focuses on how the changing levels of these compounds could damage delicate ecosystems such as sea grass beds. Besides the oil-covered birds and marshland, Schwartz believes there may be less visible victims of the oil spill in area waterways. “We are looking at all the stuff that you cannot see,” he said.

Their research is another example of how UWF students and professors are using their area knowledge and expertise to document damage from the spill — the result of the April 20 oil platform explosion about 50 miles from Louisiana. Since that day, crude oil has been flowing into the Gulf impacting four states, though oil has appeared visually only in the forms of tar balls, tar mats and weathered oil in Pensacola.

Smith’s day at the beach includes visiting five different sites to test the body of water in each location, collect samples and then perform a few on-site testing procedures in the back of his truck. Each stop takes about 45 minutes and the sites he visits include the UWF beach property on Santa Rosa Island, Fort Pickens and Escambia Bay.

As a few tourists look on, Smith begins a process he will repeat at each site each week. Here is a brief look at the research process in action:

After arriving at a location, he records its geographic coordinates, the date and site. That done, he grabs an empty liter bottle, a YSI multi-meter and heads to the water’s edge. Once there, he lowers the end of the meter into the water to determine percentages of the water’s dissolved oxygen, temperature and salinity. After recording the numbers, he takes the bottle, rinses it three times with Gulf water to ensure no other liquid is present, collects one full liter of Gulf water and seals the container.

Smith returns to his truck and assembles a mobile lab for the on-site procedures. His first test eventually will determine the amount of chlorophyll present. He collects 100 milliliters and pushes the liquid through a filter using a hand pump. Then he removes the filter and seals it in an aluminum pouch for more analysis later. He repeats the chlorophyll testing procedure two additional times with multiple rinsing in between.

The next procedure involves preparing ampules for shipment to a lab in Delaware to determine the amounts of dissolved organic carbon and dissolved organic nitrogen present. He measures 15 millileters of Gulf water and adds a small amount of trace metal grade hydrochloric acid to help preserve the sample. He places the solution in a sterilized ampule which is sealed using portable propane torch. He prepares two ampules for shipment. His last chore at each site is to rinse all testing equipment, repack it and drive to the next location.

“I took this opportunity to pursue this research with Dr. Schwartz primarily because it’s a huge event and there will be long-term effects,” said Smith, who has a bachelor’s degree in geology, He hopes to use his summer oil spill research project as the basis of his master’s thesis at UWF.

“When doing research there has to be interest and funding … and there is definitely the potential for long-term funding to study the repercussions of what’s happening.”

By Susie Forrester, University Marketing Communications