Current publication: Spring 2012
MERL – the Marine Environmental Research Laboratory – has been a cornerstone of Oviatt’s research since it opened in 1976 thanks to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant. The facility serves as an operation center and support laboratory for large experimental ecosystems. MERL houses fourteen large cylindrical enclosures roughly 6 feet wide by 18 feet deep arranged along a deck outside of the building.
The MERL tanks are “a tool which has tremendous value for answering direct questions,” according to Oviatt. Scientists can use the mini-mesocosms to determine how ecosystems react to high sewage rages, salinity gradients, trace metals – like copper and iron, and acidity.
“In the early days, MERL was a really big operation. We operated on a budget of just under a million dollars a year there in the early years. So we had investigators from – I don’t know – 10 or more different universities all working collaboratively here, it was very interdisciplinary,” said Nixon, calling the research “really exciting stuff for its time.”
While researchers still have the benefit of all of MERL’s history, researchers at the two laboratories have moved on to a diverse portfolio of other groundbreaking research.
For the last five years, Oviatt’s lab focused its attention on the low oxygen problem in the Bay known as “hypoxia.” Her large research team – training 29 graduate students since she landed her own URI laboratory in 1969 – is currently studying how metabolism, phytoplankton, and respiration could contribute to low oxygen in the Bay and how pollution in the upper-bay can affect the lifecycles of the estuary’s bottom-dwelling life.
“We expect some really dramatic changes in the next couple of years,” said Oviatt.
A buoy network initiated in the late 1990’s by researcher Dana Kester, gives scientists the opportunity to look at the whole system in the Bay with fast time-series measurements. In a partnership with the Department of Environmental Management, Oviatt’s laboratory is part of the long-term buoy network that monitors the Bay’s water quality during summer months.
Above and beyond her research, for which she received the URI Outstanding Researcher Award, Oviatt is currently an associate director of the Coastal Institute. She is also a member of the team leading the National Science Foundation’s Integrated Graduate Education & Research Training program. IGERT teaches graduate students to facilitate communication between scientists and policymakers – an increasingly important skill for environmental and marine scientists.
Nixon was an authority in coastal ecology and global assessment as well as an NSF EPSCoR researcher with Oviatt. He received the Estuarine Research Federation Odum Award for lifetime achievement. He was Director of the Rhode Island Sea Grant College Program for 16 years. It was Sea Grant that drew him to the Ocean State in 1969.
“I came [to Rhode Island] because it was a really exciting opportunity to do that interdisciplinary kind of work,” said Nixon. “And who wouldn’t have come here? It’s a beautiful place and you had an opportunity to work with some really smart people in diverse disciplines. I’ve always had an interdisciplinary bent – as most ecologists do. It was an amazingly exciting opportunity as a young scientist.”
Currently, Nixon’s lab focuses on the biogeochemical cycling of coastal ecosystems. His research led him to nearly all watershed rivers in Narragansett Bay as well as the coastal salt ponds across the south shore and out towards the outer shelf systems near Block Island sound.
“Our continuing efforts to look at different interactions between the water columns and the sediments have been a recurring theme in my lab and we’ve had some very exciting results for that,” said Nixon. He trained 17 Master’s students and 20 Ph.D. students over the years.
He and his group saw the climate change story unfolding through their biogeochemical cycling work in water sediments in Narragansett Bay and beyond. One Nixon graduate student is studying a mangrove environment in Puerto Rico and one student is working in Egypt.
Fortunately for the rest of the student population, Nixon and Oviatt didn’t limit sharing their years of expertise to the students in their labs. The two scientists also spread their knowledge of Narragansett Bay with the next generation of marine biologists and oceanographers through a joint seminar on the ecology of the Bay. The spring semester class includes roughly 10 students a year and covers topics from the physics of the Bay to climate change effects to ecosystem management.
As the state of research in Rhode Island continues to evolve and scientists come and go, it’s more important than ever for the Ocean State’s budding marine researchers to build a strong foundation and to understand the importance of the Bay in our backyard.