On the front line

A UGA marine scientist is in charge of some of the most significant research underway at the site of the Gulf oil spill

On the front line

Joye’s team collected samples from a 20- by-3-mile grid in the Gulf of Mexico by dropping a rosette of water collection bottles and special sensors repeatedly in the water.

UGA marine sciences Professor Samantha Joye is busy logging data when the captain of the research vessel Walton Smith comes across the intercom. “Mandy, line 3.”

Joye, who goes by Mandy, instinctively groans at the latest interruption of her research. Her colleagues chuckle. The calls from such major news outlets as National Public Radio, The New York Times, CBS and National Geographic have been incessant during Joye’s 14-day research cruise to document the underwater oil plume caused by the BP oil spill.

“It’s ridiculous,” she says. “I can’t get anything done!”

Less than two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, creating the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, Joye gave an interview to The New York Times describing the underwater oil plumes discovered on a cruise (that didn’t include Joye) near the leaking wellhead. The story was published on the Times web site at 8:30 p.m. on May 15. Fifteen minutes later, her phone started ringing. It hasn’t stopped. When the Walton Smith docked June 6 in Gulfport, Miss., a dozen news cameras greeted her.

The exposure is disconcerting to the petite, soft-spoken scientist. “I never expected to be the face of this oil spill,” she says.

Joye, who had done extensive research in the Gulf of Mexico prior to the oil spill, was one of the first researchers on the scene once the spill began. With research funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Joye made plans to go to the Gulf to do immediate impact assessments. The first cruise was May 9-16. The second cruise, on which she was accompanied by reporters, began May 24.

At times, she worked 18 hours a day and was up until the wee hours processing the data her team was collecting from the depths of the sea. Upon her return in June, she was called to testify before Congress and had just days to prepare her presentation. Already she has published a commentary in Nature Geoscience, has another paper submitted for publication to a top-tier journal, and another that she planned to submit for publication before returning to the Gulf in August.

She admits she likes the pace.

“I get bored easily,” says Joye, 44. “I’m one of those odd people who loves having a thousand things going on. What other people may find chaotic, I love.”

Growing up on a farm in southeastern North Carolina, Joye did not plan to be an oceanographer. The self-described “nerdy” girl wanted to be a physician, a heart surgeon, in fact, and practiced by stitching up injured animals.

She got her first microscope when she was 8, and it opened her eyes to a world she had yet to discover. She’d sit out by her family’s pond and examine things she found floating in the water.

“This invisible, microscopic world suddenly became visible to me,” she says. “The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know; learning and discovery is a process that continues throughout your life.”

It was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biology 1987, that she discovered her true passion. She took an elective oceanography class during her junior year and fell instantly in love with marine science. She stayed at UNC for her master’s and Ph.D. in marine sciences and then spent time at San Francisco State University and Texas A&M before coming to UGA as an assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences in 1997. She made full professor in 2006.

Her commitment to her research and her professionalism have held steady even as BP dismissed her initial discovery of the oil plumes. While the oil giant issued statements disputing the findings, Joye and her team, which includes scientists and students from the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of California at Santa Barbara, continued collecting data and samples from the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. They studied a 20-by-3-mile grid, dropping in a rosette of water collection bottles and special sensors, and hauling up liters of water to study the impacts of this unprecedented hydrocarbon infusion on water column microbial communities.

“Oil and gas are biologically digestible and parts of the oil fraction can be toxic,” Joye explains. “The injection of such large quantities of oil and gas into the gulf system will almost certainly have negative impacts on many parts of the system for years, even decades, to come.”

The water samples are being analyzed to measure the levels of oil, dissolved gases, nutrients, microbiology and microbial activity rates. Workers at Texas A&M University’s Geochemical and Environmental Research Group will “fingerprint” the oil in these samples to confirm its origin.

At UGA, Joye and her team are busy confirming her hypothesis—that the oil and gas are depleting oxygen levels in the water. It could take decades to replenish oxygen after serious depletion in the deep water, she explains.

“That’s gonna cause problems for anything and everything that lives in that water.”

For Joye, that is a personally devastating discovery.

It was at Texas A&M in the mid-1990s that she became truly fascinated with the Gulf of Mexico. Being there “really opened it up for me because many of my colleagues there had years of experience working in the Gulf,” she says. “I learned a lot from them and my experience there helped me start the basic research program I have continued and expanded since coming to UGA.”

“I care about this system. It’s a body of water I have invested a lot of myself in. It’s not just an oil spill. For me, it’s personal.”

That passion is likely what drew the media to her early on. But what also has kept them coming back is her ability to explain complex scientific scenarios in a way that those without a science background can understand.

She has one more month-long research cruise to the Gulf coming up in November. While she’s gone, her husband of seven years, fellow UGA marine scientist Christof Meile, cares for their daughter Sophie, now 2 and a half.

“My husband is a saint,” Joye says. “He understands how important this is. But our life is important, too.” That’s why she’s implemented a new rule: She no longer responds to messages from reporters who call her home. “You have to be willing to draw lines to protect your personal life.”

But as annoying as the interruptions can be, she knows her research, and the reporting of it, are important.

“Honestly,” she says, “this is where my heart’s always been—the Gulf.”

Get More

Follow Mandy Joye on her blog at http://gulfblog.uga.edu.

For more on the Department of Marine Sciences, go to http://alpha.marsci.uga.edu.


About the Author

—Sandi Martin is public relations coordinator for the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. She accompanied Joye on a May research trip to the Gulf.