Turning a disaster into a discovery is one mission of microbiologist Patricia Sobecky.
Her research on the deadly 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill has had impacts beyond getting papers published. It has assisted coastal families who rely on the fishing and energy resources of the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands were harmed by the tragedy that washed crude oil onto beaches and wetlands.
Sobecky is a professor of biological sciences, an associate provost, and the director of the Alabama Water Institute at the University of Alabama. She was named a AAAS fellow in 2016.
She said shortly after that oil blowout, as she and her team drove along the Alabama coast to start collecting water samples, local residents would see the university logos on their vehicles and stop to talk and share their fears.
“The coast people would ask, ‘What’s going on? What’s going to happen?’ You as the scientist understand the system. But this is literally their family, their family’s lives. People were frightened. That’s their livelihood. I don’t think that has ever left me,” she said.
Sobecky said one lesson from the accident that killed 11 oil workers and triggered the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history, is developing better ways to communicate with the public.
“Getting information to people who need it, right then and there, I think we can get better at that,” she said.
If a disaster like this occurs again, federal agencies, such as NOAA and the EPA; industry; and academic experts may be able to respond faster and with methods that may help limit damage to water and wildlife. That’s because huge amounts of data collected after the spill are now at the fingertips of scientists worldwide.
“If a spill were to happen tomorrow, other academics would be able to have that information. It is published, it is available on different public data sites, so that it would be available to predict what would happen to the ecosystem,” she said.
Researchers now have multiple years of data documenting how coastal and marsh zones have responded in the seven years since the pollution from 87 days of petroleum release. Sobecky said many new tools are available to help design more efficient cleanup responses.
“Ten years ago the ability to interrogate a sample through DNA sequencing was just coming on. Now, the first thing you do is interrogate the entire sample for all the genetic information that is in there, down to individual genes. You have a tremendous ability from a technology standpoint, to really characterize a system,” she said. “Being able to look at the genetic components of these systems, and ask, how are they interacting? How are they adapting and evolving? You really get to peer into these systems in a way that [we] never would have imagined 20 years ago.”
In battling the oil spill, BP and the federal government used more than a million gallons of dispersants, primarily Corexit, to break it up. But questions remain about how those dispersants may interfere with the actions of the naturally occurring microbes in the Gulf.
That’s where Sobecky’s research on bioremediation may help replicate the responses of those hard- working microbes. Since some microbes in the ocean naturally degrade oil, one goal is to speed up their metabolism.
“If you can understand the biological processes, you might then be able to tap in and use that information to help in creating synthetic systems,” said Sobecky.
And, she said, understanding the work of those microbes may go beyond helping with oil cleanups; the same principles can be used in addressing other challenges of the world’s water quality.
Field work, whether collecting samples after an oil spill or working with the newly created Water Institute that Sobecky heads, is a powerful way to get a new generation hooked on science.
“When you get out in the field, you have a chance to connect and reflect with the students, and that is when they start to see some of the excitement,” she said.
“It is that absolute joy of discovery. So how do you pass that joy on? It has to be genuine. Folks have to see that you really are excited and you wouldn’t do anything else. We sometimes focus too much on how hard it is, not on that innocent joy you had when you first looked into a microscope or watched the ants in your ant farm run around,” said Sobecky.
Field work can also help young scientists think on their feet. As chief scientist on some Gulf of Mexico research cruises in 2002 and 2003 to study life in extreme environments, Sobecky discovered the challenges of gathering samples and data in a four person submersible. She said it was a good test of flexibility when things don’t go as planned. If you are 1900 feet down, she said, it’s not an option to go back up, so you start improvising. And she said, it’s amazing what you can accomplish with wire, tubing, and duct tape!
Sobecky did not anticipate a career where she would be sharing her insight with scientists and industry experts around the world.
“I was a first generation college student, so the concept of choosing science as a career was not remotely on my radar until high school,” she said.
Through many University of Alabama outreach programs, she “pays it forward” to encourage students of all ages who also may not picture themselves succeeding in a research lab.
Sometimes, she said, the courage to explore a career in science hinges on having someone believe in you, and believe in you at the right time. For example, men and women may react to the rejection of a paper or a grant proposal in different ways. And for some it is career ending.
“We process failures differently,” she said. “I think back, I never thought failing was a problem. It helps you learn, you get smarter each time. My tolerance level is high. I will do something fifty times, five hundred times, if it’s something I’m going to use that will help me with something else. But that’s not how many people think. They stop at certain pathways. How do you help people move past that? That’s an important part of mentoring.”