By Annette Hinkle
With issues like flooding, depletion of shellfish and finfish populations and an increasing number of algal bloom events making news around the region, the overall health of the East End’s waterways — from ponds, streams and bays to the groundwater beneath our feet — have come into question.
While many scientific questions remain regarding the causes and solutions of water degradation, a new marine research facility at Stony Brook University’s Southampton Campus may play a key role in answering some of those questions right here in our own backyard.
Last Friday, Stony Brook Southampton officially opened its new state-of-the-art Marine Sciences Center for the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS). Situated along the shore of Fort Pond with views of Shinnecock Bay beyond, the 15,000 square foot facility was built with $6.9 million in state money secured by Senator Ken LaValle and Assemblyman Fred Thiele, both of whom have long been avid champions of revitalizing the Southampton campus which Stony Brook University purchased from Long Island University in 2006.
“Stony Brook’s marine science program is nationally ranked,” said Senator LaValle. “We’re in competition with other peer colleges and universities that have similar programs. If we’re going to attract the best and brightest faculty and students we need a state of the art facility.”
“I think this facility does this,” says LaValle.
The LEED-certified facility replaces three small buildings that for years functioned as the marine science station, first for Long Island University’s highly regarded undergraduate marine science program and more recently for Stony Brook University’s program after it purchased the campus.
In addition to a 2,500 square foot computerized seawater lab with four different temperature lines, and recirculation capabilities, the two story facility has analytical labs, classrooms, a conference room and an outdoor tank area which will allow for research projects utilizing natural light. The center also has space for public lectures and summer educational programs and a large lobby for public outreach programs.
“The gem of the facility is the wet lab,” says Chris Paparo, manager of the new facility and a 1999 graduate of Southampton College. “It’s what takes SoMAS to the next level.”
Paparo explains that the size of the facility and the high-tech nature of the system will allow for a much greater number and variety of research projects to be conducted simultaneously than in the past. Water has always been pumped into the marine station from Fort Pond for use in experiments on organisms such as scallops, clams and oysters, but research has historically slowed considerably once the temperature of the incoming pond water dips and research organisms go into sleep mode.
The new computerized facility, explains Paparo, can adjust incoming water from the pond in an endless variety of ways to mimic real-life marine conditions, depending on the research being conducted. There is also an option to recirculate the water in a completely closed system.
“Now we’ll be able to control the temperature and make the water hotter or colder and maintain that temperature year round,” explains Paparo. “If someone wants to study an organism at 10 degree Celsius year round, they can have that.”
The lab also allows water to be set at specific salinity and pH levels, which means a researcher can mimic the conditions of any body of water around the world.
“We can also study ocean acidification. Realistically, we could even do fresh water if someone wanted to do a fresh water application,” adds Paparo. “More importantly, because we get brown tide and more recently rust tide in Fort Pond, those tides can kill your research. In cases where that shows up we can put it on the closed system and research can continue.”
The state-of-the-art nature of the system also means the whole operation is highly efficient from a carbon-footprint point of view.
“Everything is computerized and there’s the environmental good stuff,” explains Paparo. “The new pumps can run at whatever percentage we need. If there are only a couple of tubs, I can run them at 25 percent. From a computer I can tell the flow rates, the temperatures and I can fix things at home. If a pump burns out, it will notify me. It’s really high-tech.”
For Chris Gobler, SoMAS professor and director of academic programs at the Southampton Campus, the new facility is a scientific game changer — not only for the students in Stony Brook’s marine science program, but for researchers such as himself who are striving to find answers to the many problems plaguing the world’s oceans.
“On the research front, it will allow us to take things to a whole new level,” says Gobler. “We’ll have a heck of a lot more control over the chemistry of the seawater coming in. We’ll be able to re-create almost any marine environment and because of the lab’s size, can study any aspect of the marine food web from the small microbial organisms to fish and shellfish.”
“And the issues we’ll address will certainly have tons of local implications,” he adds. “A lot of the research will, for example, be looking at algal blooms — the brown, red and rust tides — and getting a sense of what’s making them more or less intense, and what effects they might be having on the marine environment and what can we do to improve it.”
“I think it’s risen to a boiling point and I think the facility will play a key role,” adds Gobler, “coupled with the vessels we have nearby to collect water samples and organisms.”