Daily Iowan: UI Team to Aid in Gulf Research

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Daily Iowan
by Alison Sullivan

Thanos Papanicolaou loves dirt. No, seriously.

“I’m the dirt professor,” said the University of Iowa environmental-engineering professor chuckling. “I work with dirt.”

Papanicolaou has been studying sediment — dirt’s proper name — for nearly 20 years.

He, along with UI postdoctoral research scholar Chris Wilson, will embark on a 10-day trip to use his knowledge of dirt to study the effects of the BP oil spill, which shook the Gulf of Mexico this past spring and summer.

In little over a week, the two, accompanied by a student researcher, will join others from around the globe in Plaquemines Parish, La.

The research team, which Papanicolau assembled, is made up of researchers from Scotland who specialize in bacteria and algae. He will also be joined by members from the University of Southern Mississippi, who will help with site location.

The biggest question: whether plants will survive. The answer will depend partly on the oil’s effects on the soil. That’s what Papanicolaou’s team will determine.

The team will place sediment — dirt from riverbeds and marshes — into a small box. By running water through the chamber and seeing if the sediment stays intact, they can study the strength of the soil.

They will also be using a gamma detector, a device which studies the sediment’s makeup without disturbing the soil.

“We are excited,” Papanicolaou said. “This is a huge issue.”

For Wilson, who lived in Mississippi for roughly 10 years, the trip means even more.

“Anytime you can help out your neighbor, you take that opportunity,” he said.

The grants supporting the teams’ efforts are funded through the Department of Energy.

They fund preliminary research the team hopes will lead to an expanded project. Papanicolaou and his research team will submit their findings to be eligible for bigger grants to continue their work after these studies are finished.

This isn’t the first time UI efforts have been drawn to the Gulf. This past summer, two graduate students ventured to Louisiana to examine the effects of oil and its toxicity on various marsh plants.

“It afforded us an opportunity to study in a real life experience,” said UI engineering Professor Jerry Schnoor, who worked with the students upon their return.

Papanicolaou and his team will fly down to the coast to collect initial samples, then travel back to Iowa to begin testing. Shortly after, they’ll drive back down with tools to continue.

“I’m excited anytime I go into the field,” Papanicolaou said.

Preparations for the trip, which first began in May, include an extensive array of background research, analyzing aerial satellite images, and permission from the state.

After testing the results, Papanicolaou anticipates continuing on and publishing the findings.
Though he has studied the effects of oil and sediment before, he said, he hasn’t studied it at this magnitude.

“[The research] means a lot because it has a great societal impact,” he said.

Overall, Papanicolau and his team feel a special kind of responsibility that extends beyond simply research.

“We have to turn this failure into an opportunity,” he said.