Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hi, everyone! My name is Meredith Evans; I am a graduate student at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) and of course, a DROPPSter. Here at UTMSI, I have had the opportunity to get involved with the DROPPS consortium thanks to my research on oil spills.
An oil sheen on the Gulf Coast in Port Aransas, TX.

As an aspiring Texan scientist, I have always had a critical view of the oil and gas industry. Although it is an established part of our culture and economy, I have come to recognize many of the negative ramifications it can have on our environment. With a large portion of drilling taking place offshore, many of these consequences occur in our oceans. Outside the devastation oil spills cause to marine plants and animals, crude oil input can cause major chemical shifts in the water column and sediment. Crude oil is a complex mixture of trace metals and hydrocarbons of varying length and shape. As the oil degrades from a variety of weathering processes, these compounds start to separate and transform. Some components will completely disappear, others will be modified, and some will be retained in the water and/or sediment for years. The story is never the same between oil spills; the remaining mixture of toxic compounds varies by location, bacterial composition, and a variety of other factors. I am interested in teasing apart these relationships and improving the methods scientists use to study oil spills so the industry can continue to thrive, but in a more environmentally responsible way.

Studying the chemistry of oil spills is an exciting field. Recently, I (like many beach goers) was combing the beach for interesting organisms. To my surprise, I found a significant number of tarballs on our beaches here in Port Aransas, TX. Tarballs are exactly what they sound like: sizeable lumps of rubbery tar. They are typically associated with offshore oil spills and formed after crude oil has been rolled around in the ocean. They come in all shapes and sizes and, in my opinion, are pretty unsightly for the beach.
A few of the tarballs I collected on the Gulf side of Mustang Island.

Most people who find them may assume them to be a unique rock or piece of coal from a barbecue. Individuals who are familiar with tarballs may think about the possible spill source, and how it may have affected species living in the area.  I, on the other hand, think about the compounds composing that tarball and what they can tell us. In our lab, we not only have the capacity to study tarball components to determine how much that tar has degraded, but we can also trace the source of that tar ball to see exactly where it came from and possibly how long it has been roaming the ocean. The tarballs I collected are currently in the freezer at UTMSI and will be analyzed soon. These kinds of discoveries are small, but give scientists and activists a better picture of how our oceans are responding to our oil consumption.
One of the algae beds I collected small tarballs from. 

Outside of tarballs, my current research focuses on using a new technique to study oil spills, ramped pyrolysis. Under the advisement of Dr. Zhanfei Liu, I am exploring the possibilities on what this technique can tell us about contaminated sediments and waters. Recently, ramped pyrolysis has been used to distinguish oil-based hydrocarbons from natural organic content in contaminated sediments and water. This technique is fast, efficient and is very useful when trying to explain organic matter in an oil-affected environment. Expanding on previous research, I hope to show how we can better use ramped pyrolysis to explain the oxygenated partition of degraded oil, which has recently been shown to be a significant product of weathering.
Some Summer Science students and me mimicking surface currents after an oil spill. 

In addition to the time I spend in the lab, I love participating in outreach opportunities where I can share my research and passions with the public. Recently, I was invited to participate in a program here at UTMSI called Summer Science. In this program, elementary and middle school students spend each day with a scientist, learning about what they do and why it is important. In my time at Summer Science, I taught students about how currents can affect oil spills. Working with 3rd – 5th graders, I was not expecting them to be knowledgeable about oil spills, but these students were sharp - they already knew a lot about how oil spreads and the damage it causes. This shows me that education and outreach about oil spills had already benefitted them (and hopefully, other students their age across the nation)! Personally, I hope to have expanded their knowledge even more and encouraged them to share the information with their friends and family, who may not have had similar exposure.
Summer Science students watching how and where the currents are moving the oil.

With expanding opportunities to learn and teach about oil spills, such as Summer Science and the DROPPS consortium, I am optimistic that scientific investigations and outreach about offshore drilling and oil spill clean up protocol can continue to improve into the future.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hello, my name is Lambert Aryee. I was one of 1783 finalists, from over 70 different countries and territories, that qualified for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) held in Los Angeles, California. I met numerous people of various ethnicities and backgrounds. I presented my science project on the dispersal of oil spills, which I worked on at the Johns Hopkins Oil Spill Lab during the past year.

Day One:
After arriving at the hotel in L.A., finalists were given the opportunity to officially meet with each other for the first time at the Pin Exchange Party. As a finalist from Maryland, my pins had the Maryland flag on them, and I was able to trade pins with 100s of finalists from countries like China, Japan, Mexico, Germany, Russia, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Additionally, the United States was heavily represented as nearly all 50 states had finalists from local and regional fairs. I met people from Texas, Ohio, California, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Illinois, Connecticut, Hawaii, and numerous other states.

Day Two:
This day was designated for set-up and inspection of the finalists' boards. The judging halls were open at 9am for finalists. All stations and boards were inspected by an ISEF staff member. Once I had passed my inspection and made sure that everything was in perfect condition, I was able to explore the city of L.A. with Darius Johnson, another finalist, and our mentors. We drove through the mountains and up into the valley, saw the Hollywood sign, explored Beverly Hills, and visited the Getty Museum which is filled with some of the best art pieces in the world. That night, a party was hosted for the finalists in front of the Staples Center at Club Nokia. This was the time for finalists to have a little fun because the next day was Grand Prize and Special Awards judging day.

Day Three:
The day officially began at 8am and ended at 5pm. All judges evaluated projects within their area of expertise. I had approximately 8-12 judges, of which 6 were scheduled to judge my project. The rest were either special awards judges or just spectator judges on break. After judging was over, ISEF rented out Universal Studios for all finalists, student observers, and mentors to go and celebrate the long and stressful day of presenting. We were at Universal from 7pm to 12pm.

Day Four:
This day was open to the public, so schools and science fair enthusiasts from the L.A. area came and listened to our presentations. This was also an opportunity for the media to come and interview the finalists and know more about their projects. I had the honor of being interviewed by a local news crew and an Innovations blogger. It was a more relaxed day. That night was the special awards ceremony. Many finalists received awards from organizations, universities, and research groups.

Day Five:
This day was the grand prize award and closing ceremony. I won a fourth place award in the category of Environmental Management with my project Dispersing Oil Slicks: Impact of Droplets on a Floating Oil Layer!