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O'Connell, Martin
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O'Connell, Martin

For Sea Grant Research, Oil Spill is Just the Latest Disaster in Gulf of Mexico Habitats

Martin O'Connell, Ph.D., is a Sea Grant researcher and the director of the Nekton Research Laboratory, Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans. His research on aquatic communities in southeastern Louisiana has taken on new urgency since the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. Dr. O'Connell received his B.Sc. from Siena College, his M.Sc. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and his Ph.D. from University of Southern Mississippi.

Why does your research matter?

My research is on aquatic communities in southeastern Louisiana. I study species that are important to our economy and environment. Many of these species are dealing with the impacts of hurricanes, sea level rise, habitat loss and now massive oil spills. My research matters because it gives us baseline data on these communities so that we can accurately assess how they respond to these challenges.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I enjoy seeing my ideas about how to answer important ecological questions put into action by smart, young people who are just beginning their careers.

Did the priorities of your research change after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill impacted all of my research, but my research priorities remain unchanged. We are still taking baseline data about community dynamics in southern Louisiana aquatic habitats. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is just the latest disaster we're studying and we'll apply the same approaches we used to test how these communities responded to Hurricane Katrina.

What did your research contribute to our knowledge of the spill?

"I enjoy seeing my ideas about how to answer important ecological questions put into action by smart, young people who are just beginning their careers."
In the year since the oil spill, we have received funding from the National Science Foundation, NOAA Sea Grant, and the Northern Gulf Institute for our work in the Pontchartrain Basin, the second most oil-spill impacted estuary in Louisiana. Our early analyses suggest few initial changes to most nekton species (actively swimming aquatic organisms), but we do have concerns about long-term problems. For example, it is likely many species in the Pontchartrain Basin lost their spring 2010 eggs and larvae due to the presence of oil. Three or four years from now when these fishes, shrimp, and crabs would have been adults, they will not be around.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

One invention that would help my research would be a highly mobile vessel that could sleep multiple crews comfortably, could travel safely in both shallow and deepwater, and could operate all of our different gear types with equal efficiency. So much of our time is spent coordinating gear and juggling vessel maintenance. It would be nice just to have more time to conduct science.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

I realized in high school that if I wanted to keep working in the outdoors, I would have to be a biologist and learn the scientific side of things. In other words, if I was going to justify being outdoors I better do something to actually help nature.

What's at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

Patterns in Freshwater Fish Ecology by William J. Matthews.

And how about a personal favorite book?

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

What part of your job as a scientist did you least expect to be doing?

I never thought as a biologist that I'd be spending most of my time sitting at a computer, dealing with budgets, and managing personnel and graduate students.

Do you have an outside hobby?

Frankly, with all of the problems that have descended about southeastern Louisiana in the last few years, no, I do not have time for a hobby. We're all just trying to stay alive and keep doing research.

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

I would likely have become a hack musician, playing botched chords and living off of Ramen noodles.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

My favorite historical scientist is Fannye A. Cook (yes, Fannye with an 'e'). She lived in Mississippi from 1889 to 1964 and was a leading scientist and conservationist. She contributed greatly to the State's ichthyological (pertaining to the study of fish) collections and brought recognition to Mississippi's valuable natural resources.
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