Points of Pride

Dr. James A. Nienow working to identify impacts of oil spills

Dr. James A. Nienow about a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico

By Malynda Dorsey

The 2010 explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling site and the subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico proved to be both deadly and costly. The oil spill also uncovered a lack of information regarding how such spills might affect the Gulf’s marine ecosystem. Valdosta State University biology professor Dr. James Nienow is part of a team of researchers and scholars trying to identify the impact of oil spills on the food chain.

Over the past two years, Nienow has participated in 12 cruises along the Gulf, extending from the mouths of Pensacola, Choctawhatchee and St. Andrew bays to about 50 miles offshore. Undergraduate and graduate students from Valdosta State have joined him to assist in the research. There are currently three undergraduates and one graduate student working on the project alongside Nienow.

Nienow studies the microalgae, specifically diatoms, dinoflagellates and related protists, in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. Microalgae sit at the base of the food chain -- serving as the primary source of food for many small animals found in aquatic systems. The study examines how these organisms fit into the system, so that in the future it may be easier to predict how oil will affect the microalgae, both positively or negatively.

“If the microalgae -- the base of food -- is affected, then so are the fish that eat them as well as the animals that eat the fish,” said Nienow. “We are trying to look at this on a comprehensive level to see what is really going on.”

The samples collected during the cruises are examined using a scanning electron microscope. Because there was only limited information about microalgae in the Gulf prior to the 2010 explosion, the changes in them are difficult to determine.

“The area of the Gulf is not that well studied,” Nienow explained. “Scientists have studied the seaweed in the area, but there has not been any research conducted on the microalgae.”

Although hundreds of samples have been collected, Nienow said that it is still too early to tell how the area has been affected based on the findings.

“We have found several new species of diatoms and some strange looking cells. We expected to find lots of deformed cells but haven’t really found that many. Every place we visit is different and we find new things during every cruise, so it will take us a while to put it all together.”

A San Diego native, Nienow has been studying algae and its role in the ecosystem for nearly three decades.

“I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from the University of California, San Diego. Then I switched to studying biology. I took some classes from San Diego State before transferring to Florida State University where I earned my Ph.D in biology. “

 During his studies at FSU he researched algae in Antarctica to determine how life survives in extremely harsh environments.  The findings were used to construct computer models of the environment. Nienow’s research was ultimately used as part of a NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) study to construct ecological models of possible life in Mars.

The professor’s research on algae continued after graduation.

Dr. Nienow works in a lab with his students.“I was teaching at Waycross College but still did work with faculty members and students at FSU,” said Nienow. “A big change came one summer while I worked as a mentor for a summer program at the Kennedy Space Center. We got some money to see how algae could be used as life support systems in spaceships. Because they (algae) are so tough, we wanted to see if they could generate enough oxygen for people to breath in the spaceships while in space. We worked on that project for several years.”

Around 1990, Nienow shifted his focus to marine algae and continued his research in that area after becoming a professor at Valdosta State in 1995.

The professor’s expertise in the field has been an asset to his work with the Deep-C Consortium, a group formed after the oil spill, and funded by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) in conjunction with BP. His research is currently funded through a $217,612 subaward from FSU as part of the Deep-C project. The current project cycle funds research for the next three years, but Nienow predicts that it will take a few years before any true results are yielded.

The Deep-C project is a collaborative effort of several institutions including FSU, Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Georgia Institute of Technology, Naval Research Laboratory at the Stennis Space Center, Norwegian Meteorological Institute, Science Application International Corporation, University of South Florida, University of West Florida, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

The Deep-C project includes research in the areas of modeling, geochemistry, ecology, physical oceanography and geomorphology and habitat classification. The overall goals of the project are to generate data on the physical, chemical and biological systems of the Gulf -- particularly areas such as the De Soto Canyon and Florida Panhandle Bight -- and incorporate this information into an earth system and food web models to make better predictions of possible consequences of crude oil and gas released from the northeastern deep Gulf.

“Overall there are eight research groups funded by GoMRI working in different areas and examining different parts of the ocean,” Nienow said. “Our research group meets every six months to share results and develop a system for moving forward.” There will be a larger meeting involving all groups working in the Gulf of Mexico under the auspices of GoMRI in New Orleans in January 2013.

The BP oil spill is a direct result of the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil-drilling rig. As a result of the explosion, 11 workers were killed and 16 workers were severely injured. The explosion also caused the rig to sink to the Gulf floor, releasing large amounts petroleum hydrocarbon.

The oil spill continued for three months, with an estimated 17 to 39 million gallons of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. Reports indicate that approximately 125 miles of Louisiana coast was polluted by the spill and more than 1,000 animals were killed as a result. The BP oil spill is considered the largest spill in U.S. history.

 Nienow currently teaches introductory level courses in biology as well as courses in nursing microbiology, microalgae and life in extreme environments at Valdosta State University.