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.

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