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Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)


Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)
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In a recent analysis of Essential Science IndicatorsSM data from Thomson Reuters, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) entered the top 1% among institutions publishing in the field of Environment & Ecology with the highest total citations, with 124 papers cited a total of 1,706 times between January 1, 1999 and June 30, 2009. Their current record in this field includes 137 papers cited a total of 1,807 times up to August 31, 2009. VIMS is also in the top 1% in the field of Plant & Animal Science, with 315 papers cited 2,936 times for the current period.

This month, takes a closer look at VIMS, its history and research projects, and talks with some of the scientists who have contributed to its citation achievements.

A Rich History in an Ideal Setting

VIMS was founded in 1940 as the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory, part of the College of William and Mary. The VIMS main campus is in Gloucester Point, Virginia, on a 40-acre plot at the mouth of the York River, which opens to Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. VIMS also has two satellite campuses: the Eastern Shore Laboratory in Wachapreague, Virginia, and the Kauffman Aquaculture Center on the Rappahannock River. The main campus's site was a strategic point during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and as such, any construction on campus is preceded by archaeological surveys.

The School of Marine Science at VIMS is the graduate school in marine science for the College of William and Mary, and confers both Master's and doctoral degrees. Currently there are 113 graduate students, and 58 faculty members. There are four main academic departments: Biological Sciences, Environmental and Aquatic Animal Health, Fisheries Science, and Physical Sciences.

A few of the scientists whose work contributed to VIMS's citation record in Essential Science Indicators talked with Editorial Coordinator Jennifer Minnick about their research and their life at VIMS.

Robert J. Orth on the Biology & Ecology of Seagrasses

Dr. Orth is Professor of Marine Science at VIMS. He first came to VIMS in 1969 as a graduate student, and joined the faculty in 1974. The focus of his research is seagrasses, particularly in terms of habitat conservation and restoration. When asked how he became interested in seagrasses, he traces it back to graduate school at VIMS: "When I was in grad school, one of my professors at VIMS was working on a project with animals in seagrasses and needed some people to get involved in it, and I said, 'Ooh, that's me! Here I am!' and that's how all that started."

Lay people look at seagrasses and likely think, "So what?" But Dr. Orth sets the record straight: seagrasses are actually quite fascinating. "There are a number of ecosystem services they provide," he says, "For example, they act as habitat for various creatures, as food for others; they spread nutrients through the system, and they can be water-quality indicators."

"I think VIMS has a lot going for it—there's a very diverse group of scientists here, it's right on the water, so we have access to various field sites, and I think there's a really good interactive community spirit."

Emmett Duffy

Seagrass habitats are in decline worldwide, and two or Orth's high-impact papers, written with colleagues from other institutions in the same field, deal with this fact. The papers were the result of a series of workshops held in California to discuss the growing concern over seagrass losses. The first paper, "A global crisis for seagrass ecosystems," (Orth RJ, et al., Bioscience 56[12]: 987-96, December 2006), "synthesizes all the information about seagrasses, tells the world about seagrasses and that we're really concerned," says Orth.

The second paper, "Accelerating loss of seagrasses across the globe threatens global ecosystems," (Waycott M, et al., Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 106[30]: 12377-81, 28 July 2009), took a comprehensive look at seagrass studies being done around the world, and showed quantitatively that in the overwhelming majority of papers, seagrasses were reported to be in decline.

When asked what the reaction to this news was in the research community, Orth reports that response was good. "We're very encouraged by the response that we've gotten from our colleagues around the world. They've provided more quantitative data, showing that the things seagrasses face are no different than those that coral reefs and marshes and mangroves are facing," he relates.

The next step is to get something done about the situation, and that's where the challenge comes in. "Now we have to work with our local groups to impress upon them how important these seagrasses are—it's that old adage, 'think global, act local.' People are concerned most about their own backyard, so you have to convince people that their backyard is important," Orth says.

This is where the second part of Orth's research comes in: seagrass seed germination and dispersal studies, with the aim of restoration. One of the advantages to Orth's approach is that he uses seeds; many other restoration programs focus on the use of mature plants. By using seeds, Orth and his team can learn more about seagrasses at the most basic levels, because, surprisingly, there has not been a lot of research done with seagrass seeds.

Orth's main efforts are focused close to home in the Chesapeake Bay, but he also has his finger in restoration projects in other locations worldwide, including Australia. The restoration of Chesapeake Bay is a huge, multi-dimensional project, crossing many different disciplines, not to mention state lines. "Water quality issues are important, and seagrasses are a part of that," Orth concludes.

Emmett Duffy: The Importance of Biodiversity and Putting It to Work

Dr. J. Emmett Duffy, currently the Loretta and Lewis Glucksman Professor of Marine Science, came to VIMS in 1994, which, he jokes, "seems like yesterday in some ways but another geologic era in others." Clearly, this is a good thing, as he adds, "I think VIMS has a lot going for it—there's a very diverse group of scientists here, it's right on the water, so we have access to various field sites, and I think there's a really good interactive community spirit."

Duffy has a broad interest in marine biodiversity—the ecology, evolution, and conservation of marine organisms. As to what lit this spark of interest in him, he relates, "I've been interested in animals since I was a kid. Early on, I became interested in invertebrates, just because they're so wildly diverse. There are all kinds of strange animals, and some of them have something to say about the early origins of life—that always fascinated me, some of the strange, primitive marine creatures. And then the first time I ever went snorkeling on a coral reef I was completely hooked, and knew that I had to figure out a way to do that for a living."

Duffy was part of a large team that collaborated on a 2006 Science paper that generated a lot of citations. "Impacts of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services" (Worm B., et al., 314[5800]: 787-90, 3 November 2006) was the result of an extensive literature search to quantify whether and how the diversity of marine animals and plants matters in terms of how ocean ecosystems function and in terms of what they provide to humans as far as natural products and services.

"We looked at a wide range of types of evidence, and the message that came out of all of these sources was consistent, and that was that as diversity declines—whether for natural or human-induced reasons—there are fairly consistent reductions in productivity of systems and also, to some degree, stability of the systems."

Duffy's biodiversity work in the Chesapeake Bay focuses on seagrass bed habitats. "Seagrass beds throughout the world are very important ecologically and economically and there is a key interaction that goes on in these beds that involves these small invertebrate grazers, essentially like the bugs of the sea that provide janitorial services, so to speak, for the grasses. They feed on the algae that grow on the grasses and therefore, they can enhance the growth rate of the grasses," he explains, "so we're interested in this key positive interaction between those small grazers and grasses and basically how changing diversity—loss of species, gain of new species, changes in the foodweb structure—influence the health of the seagrasses."

Duffy isn't just studying biodiversity—he's also looking into ways to make biodiversity work for us. "After spending years studying how biodiversity influences functional ecosystem processes, we're now beginning to get interested in how to employ biodiversity to do jobs in a way that is sustainable and compatible with a healthy, natural environment," he shares. "What I'm talking about in particular here is using natural, wild algal communities to clean up pollution and use as a feedstock for biofuel. We've just recently gotten some seed money to start off a project in this area, and we're working with a group of partners from the College of William and Mary, the University of Arkansas, the Smithsonian Institution, and the University of Maryland."

What makes their new project so different from other biofuel projects, Duffy explains, is that "the vast majority of those other projects are focusing on fairly high-tech bio-reactor systems, where they take a particular strain or species of algae that's bred to be good under certain conditions and use that. Our approach is quite different in that what we're trying to do is use wild, diverse communities—rather than trying to figure it out ourselves, we're letting Nature's three billion years of experience with algal evolution figure out which ones work best. Our hope is that by having a number of different species in our portfolio, so to speak, we'll be able to weather environmental changes better than any one particular algal species would—in the same way that a stock portfolio is more stable when you have some diversity to it."

Michael Unger and Eclectic Environmental Chemistry

Another one of the researchers involved in the wild algal biofuel project is Dr. Michael Unger, Associate Professor of Marine Science, who came to VIMS as a researcher in 1990. Unger's overall research goal is to "establish an environmental chemistry program known for conducting high-quality research on the fate of environmental contaminants." On the surface, environmental chemistry and the biodiversity of wild algal communities may not seem related, but Unger's interests are, in his words, "a bit eclectic."

"I have studied a variety of contaminants and have done everything from analytical method development to toxicity studies. My work has included very basic research but always there is an applied end goal of a better understanding of the environmental effects of pollution," he says. So how does that tie into the biofuels project? "Because of my interest in contaminant fate, I'm looking at how the algae concentrate and/or degrade contaminants during the growing process. We could potentially use this as a remediation technique but must simultaneously be aware of the fate of the contaminants throughout the algae-growth-to-fuel-to-waste life cycle," Unger explains.

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One of Unger's highly cited papers is the 2000 Human and Ecological Risk Assessment article, "A probabilistic ecological risk assessment of tributyltin in surface waters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed" (Hall LW, et al., 6[1]: 141-79, February 2000). This paper, coupled with earlier publications, were the result of a collaboration with Len Hall, Jr., at the University of Maryland. Together, they were able to show that even low concentrations of tributyltin (TBT) could affect key species, such as copepods, which are important to marine food webs.

"At VIMS, my group had been monitoring TBT concentrations near marinas in the lower Chesapeake Bay since the late 1980s and we had one of the most extensive environmental datasets in existence for the compound. We were able to use this monitoring data to show that state and federal regulations passed in the late 1980s, which restricted TBT use on vessels below 25 meters in length, had been successful at reducing TBT concentrations near marinas, but that there was still risk to sensitive estuarine organisms in areas where TBT use had been high or commercial TBT use continued," Unger explains. "Reduced degradation of TBT in sediments at these sites or continued use on vessels larger than 25 meters long had maintained water concentrations that were still potentially harmful. Recently, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has passed international regulations prohibiting TBT use on the larger vessels as well."

The banning of TBT is a success story that brings Unger a great deal of satisfaction. "It's been gratifying to work on a research area (TBT) that began over 25 years ago with identification of a potential problem and development of the analytical tools to study its fate and effects and has followed it through to regulations that will eventually eliminate it as a concern in the marine environment. Many of the pollution-related things we study are focused on finding bad news so it's been nice to be involved with something that has resulted in positive change," he says.

Collaboration with like-minded researchers has been a critical factor throughout Unger's career. "As an undergraduate I majored in zoology, and worked with an aquatic ecologist—Dr. William Cooper—and while I ended up specializing in environmental chemistry later on, that interest in understanding the ecological significance of pollution sticks with me and makes collaboration a necessity," he relates.

Apart from the project with Emmett Duffy, Unger is also collaborating with another VIMS researcher, Dr. Steve Kaattari, on the development of antibody-based biosensors for measuring aquatic contaminants. "Steve’s research focus is fish immunology. We have a graduate student working with us, Candace Spier, who is now testing a biosensor she developed that can measure polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in environmental water samples at concentrations below 1 ppb in minutes! This would normally take us days in my lab with conventional techniques," he enthuses. "These types of analytical developments will enable us to monitor contaminants in near real-time and conduct studies we thought were impossible a few years ago."

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Institutional Interviews : 2009 : Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)