Grad Student Hamilton Hunts Oil Using Microbes

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Bryan traveled to a Florida Strait sampling site to collect bacteria. He analyzed these samples to identify differences between microbial communities in the sea surface microlayer and underlying subsurface water. (Photo credit: Alexander Soloviev)

Bryan Hamilton never planned to be a microbiologist, but when the opportunity arose to study microbes that produce biosurfactant in response to oil exposure, he was drawn in completely. His research investigated the potential connection between these microbes and natural surface slicks and if this connection could help scientists detect oil below the water’s surface.

Bryan completed a marine biology masters’ degree at Nova Southeastern University while he was a GoMRI Scholar with CARTHE. He shared the research experiences that altered the path of his scientific career.

His Path

Bryan first saw the ocean when he was six years old during a family trip to the East Coast and became fascinated with the marine life he encountered. He realized then that he wanted to work in the marine environment when he grew up. After high school, he attended the Palm Beach Atlantic University to study marine biology.

Bryan credits his involvement with GoMRI research to Dr. Alexandre Soloviev who had a graduate student position available studying marine bacteria in his physical oceanography lab at Nova Southeastern University. Bryan was initially unsure of his interest in studying bacteria (he felt more like a shark guy), but was hooked when he learned he would be investigating sea-surface bacteria’s role in slick formation. “The research sounded like something I would love to be a part of,” he said. “That project was part of CARTHE and introduced me to many of the researchers I work with today.”

His Work

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Bryan prepares a polymerase chain reaction to determine bacterial abundance in sea surface microlayer samples taken from the Florida Strait and Gulf of Mexico. (Photo credit: Cayla Dean)

Bryan explained that although the word “slick” is often associated with oil spills, these films on the water’s surface can occur for many reasons, including the accumulation of surfactants. Surfactants are compounds that help break up oil in the water column, resulting in smaller oil droplets. “Sea slicks formed by biosurfactants could serve as an indicator of the presence of organic matter in the water column,” he explained. “Surfactants travel to the surface, so it might be possible to determine if there is oil in the water column based on satellite images of natural surfactant slick formations.”

Bryan’s research focused on surfactant-producing bacteria living in or near the sea-surface microlayer (the upper 1 mm of the ocean where air meets sea). His team used Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite imagery to identify slicks across the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Straight. He then conducted DNA analysis on bacteria collected from these areas to detect differences in the abundance of surfactant-producing bacteria under slick and non-slick conditions. His observations appear to support a microbe-slick connection, as there was a higher abundance of these bacteria in slick areas compared to non-slick areas.

Bryan believes that learning more about the microbes that are active in the air-sea interface will help researchers better understand sea-surface oil transport. “Bacteria are so important to the ocean ecosystem,” he said. “The potential links between microbial life and surface features seen in satellite images may help improve recovery efforts and strategies.”

His Learning

Bryan called his work with Soloviev his “first real taste of research” that prepared him for the scientific field. The trial-and-error process of designing more efficient sampling techniques was at first frustrating, but he and Soloviev were able to make improvements as they continued. “I learned that there is a lot more to research than conducting an experiment and seeing what you find,” said Bryan. “There are often many attempts and failures before you figure out the best way to do something.”

Through his work with CARTHE, Bryan discovered how eager other scientists were to collaborate. His most memorable experience was participating in CARTHE’s Surfzone Coastal Oil Pathways Experiment (SCOPE), which used drifters, dye, and drones to research the mechanisms that move water-borne materials onshore. During the event, everyone’s willingness to help with each other’s experiments impressed Bryan, “It was quite a large group of people, so teamwork was extremely important to the experiment’s success. It was great to see everyone working together to solve a problem.”

His Future

Bryan recently completed his masters’ degree and accepted a molecular biologist position near Miami, but remains open to the possibility of pursuing a Ph.D. He said that the lab work involved in his CARTHE research gave him the necessary experience for the job. “My GoMRI experience really opened up my options for a career after graduate school, especially since genetic work can be applied to wide range of fields.”

Bryan suggested that future science students should get involved in as many activities and volunteer opportunities that they can, even if the work is outside of their direct interests. He explained that getting involved with other researchers can open up new opportunities and lead to connections with people in your area of interest. “You never know who you will meet or what you will learn through those experiences,” he said.

Praise for Bryan

Soloviev described Bryan as a “bright, hard-working young researcher who goes above and beyond to understand complex biophysical problems.” He praised Bryan’s contributions to the development of a microlayer sampling technique that reduces interference from the research ship, ship wake, and researcher activities. The improved technique was implemented during the SCOPE program and made sample collection more efficient and possible across a wider range of wind-wave conditions, resulting in more samples being collected, improving the project’s statistics.

Soloviev also noted Bryan’s other accomplishments, including oral presentations at major national and international conferences in 2014 (the International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium in Canada and the Earth Observation for Ocean-Atmosphere Interactions Science conference in Italy) and his recent article in the Canadian Journal of Remote Sensing.

The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Bryan Hamilton and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals.

Visit the CARTHE website to learn more about their work.

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This research was made possible in part by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to theConsortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment (CARTHE) I and II. The GoMRI is a 10-year independent research program established to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies. An independent and academic 20-member Research Board makes the funding and research direction decisions to ensure the intellectual quality, effectiveness and academic independence of the GoMRI research. All research data, findings and publications will be made publicly available. The program was established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP. For more information, visit http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.