Phytoplankton Dynamics Lab    

The lab’s research is focused on phytoplankton as model organisms to address questions related to water, climate and energy. We use quantitative and experimental approaches to elucidate the importance of biotic and abiotic factors influencing phytoplankton dynamics (community composition, physiology, ecology) in both field and laboratory-settings. It is collaborative, multidisciplinary and international (see publications list). However, does not follow the 20th century paradigm of striving to be the best in a narrowly defined field. Rather, our research paradigm is to continuously generate new ideas and new collaborations and alliances, which is needed to do well in the 21st century. In this way, the research we perform in the lab is capacity building for a new generation, with whom I have a strong commitment.

One of the greatest challenges facing the world today is ensuring an adequate supply and quality of water to meet rapidly increasing human needs whilst securing the continued health of our waterways. The goal of much of the lab’s research is to understand and predict interactions between water systems, climate change, land use and ecosystem function and services in estuaries and coasts. Studies are performed at a level of spatial and temporal resolution to allow for extrapolation to other regions, and to ultimately develop and/or feed predictive models. We are working predominately in the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston Bay and other Texas bayous to address these concerns, but also have studies with colleagues in other regions of the world.

One of the important emerging issues for the 21st century is the fate and transport of engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) in the environment. By investigating ENPs which have trace metal cores, we have been able to transition from investigating metals as nutritional components of phytoplankton (papers pre-2008) to work on toxicity of metals (more recent papers). We have found phytoplankton are directly and indirectly impacted by ENPs (elemental versus metal ion accumulation respectively), such that there is an increased potential for bioaccumulation and biomagnification to higher trophic levels. Because of the potential to alter biogeochemical cycles including the C and N cycle, this will continue to be an active area of future studies; as will the potential phytoplankton protective and detoxifying mechanisms.

A second important issue is the need for alternative energy sources. Given phytoplankton grow rapidly, generate significant biomass on a small foot print using non-potable water with minimal nutrients, we started with screening species with the greatest potential for the biofuels industry. Studies have focused on multifactorial experiments examining requirements for light, nutrients (types and ratios) and temperature. By working with agricultural engineers, we are now addressing challenges associated with pond design and harvesting.