A surprise turn: How one scientist dropped everything to study the oil spill

What’s a scientist to do when an oilrig explodes his backyard?

A surprise turn: How one scientist dropped everything to study the oil spill
Joe Griffitt outside his lab on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, one of the areas contaminated by the BP oil spill. [Image Credit: Rachel Nuwer]

Robert “Joe” Griffitt never intended to get involved in the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill disaster. Griffitt, an aquatic toxicologist, contentedly spent his days testing the effects of microscopic pieces of metal on aquatic wildlife. “Then six months ago BP had an oopsie,” Griffitt said. Just days after the spill, Griffitt realized the need for immediate action, put his own work on hold and journeyed into the Gulf, when few others few other scientists were taking the initiative.

With the final report by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling released yesterday, many are reconsidering the factors that led to the deepwater disaster and how they can be avoided in the future. The report frustratingly concludes that the catastrophe could have been prevented were it not for BP and their contractors’ “failure of management.” More worryingly, such an event could likely happen again if significant changes in government policy and industry practice do not happen.  While managers and government officials discuss the overarching failures, scientists like Griffitt, who was not involved in the report, continue to wade through the on-the-ground cleanup mess.

Griffitt, who has worked at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Lab for the past two years, had the necessary skills to test the effects of the oil spill on aquatic animals. Griffitt says he quickly got up to speed on the task at hand, collecting fish, shrimp and crabs before the oil arrived on the Mississippi Gulf. The timing was especially important in this case; Griffitt’s early arrival meant he could make comparisons later between the animals’ conditions before and after the spill. The oil spill project is just one of many topics he has tenaciously pursued, though.

Griffitt’s devotion to biology began long before the BP oil spill. He always knew he’d be a scientist and recalls his “geeky” childhood habit of reading hardcore science fiction on his family’s mountain farm in North Carolina. Griffitt, 35, earned his master’s degree just one state away at the University of South Carolina. Although he could have attended Harvard or Stanford, Griffit’s former graduate advisor Bruce Coull pointed out, he preferred to stick close to home.

Coull, a marine ecologist, introduced Griffitt to the molecular side of aquatic toxicology. In the 1990s, Coull’s lab was at the forefront of examining the genetic effects of pollution on tiny marine animals. “Joe picked up on this and ran with it,” Coull said. During his post-doctoral research at the University of Florida with aquatic toxicologist David Barber, Griffitt finally realized his true calling: nanoparticles. Tiny specks of materials less than 100 nanometers across, nanoparticles are about 10,000 times smaller than the average grain of sand and “are in things that you wouldn’t expect them to be in,” Griffitt says. For example, women’s makeup sometimes contains nanoparticles to brighten colors, and long-term hiking gear is often embedded with silver nanoparticles that cut down the smell of 6-day-old underwear.

Griffitt beams when speaking about nanoparticles. For him, their intrigue stems from his desire to see a well-understood contaminants like heavy metals from a different angle. Although an environmental catastrophe caused by large-scale nanoparticle contamination has not occurred yet, Griffitt’s work prepares for such a scenario by looking for potential problems before they actually happen. Barber said that Griffitt’s curiosity opened many new directions and investigations, and together they were some of the first scientists to show that nanoparticles can actually harm creatures like fish. In work published in Toxicological Sciences in 2008, Griffitt and his team found that silver nanoparticles accumulate in the gills of fish, but copper nanoparticles, which accumulate in the gills to a lesser extent than silver, are the real culprits for potentially toxic gill swelling. “Something is going on but we have no idea what it is at this point,” Griffitt said, stressing the need for more research.

But before he could figure it out, the BP disaster struck. “I remember vaguely hearing about an oil rig in the Gulf exploding,” Griffitt recalls. A couple of days passed with no developments. After the oilrig sank, he says, “I remember driving in on that Friday and thinking, wait a second, an oil rig just exploded about 100 miles south of here—this is something I need to pay attention to!” No one in the department had a clue where the oil was going to go, so he quickly rounded up his lab members and told them to forget what they were doing: “We’re going on the boat and we’re going to catch fish!”

Over the next month, Griffitt abandoned his nanoparticle work and spent his days along the coast catching samples of every fish, shrimp and crab he could find before the oil arrived.  Having those pristine specimens will allow him to later make comparisons with animals contaminated by the oil.

Although he reacted quickly to the situation, funding sources did not. “We kept waiting for money to actually do this stuff but no money showed up,” he said. Griffitt and colleagues scavenged what funding they could and even paid for much of the work themselves until the National Science Foundation and others started sending money their way.

With funding now in hand, Griffitt plans to perform laboratory experiments to understand the effects of oil contamination. His team will then compare next year’s generation of Gulf-dwelling animals to the results from experimental oil exposure in the lab. This will allow them to draw a plausible link between the oil’s effects in the lab and the impacts it has in nature over time. Griffit expects their first paper about the spill to be published this summer.

In addition to laboratory science, Griffitt values communication between scientists and the public. “One of the things that scientists do a truly abysmal job at is speaking to the public,” he said. To counteract that, he has reached out to the community since the oil spill by attending public meetings and even making appearances on NBC and other news programs. Griffitt’s philosophy is to be up-front with people rather than “hiding behind scientific jargon” or “dumbing it down” as so much of the media tends to do, he says.

During these public talks, Griffitt is careful not to jump to conclusions. “People want definite answers. [They] want to know if the shrimp are safe to eat or not.” But the honest answer, he said, is that scientists don’t know what the effects of the oil will be and probably won’t know for ten years. Rather than making false predictions, he lets people know the complexity of the situation as well as the uncertainty. He explains to people that while some species will probably be hammered by the spill, others will escape relatively unscathed. But which animals fall into these categories is yet to be determined.

For now, Griffitt seems to be a reluctant crusader in the oil spill predicament, but nevertheless feels compelled to act. “Oil [research] has never really been an interest of mine,” he said, but he didn’t feel he had much choice. “I could smell . . . the burning oil right in our backyard.” He predicts he’ll spend the next two years immersed in oil work before being able to get back to his real passion, nanoparticles.

Posted in: Environment

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