New Aquatic Sciences Center will provide water expertise

C areers in marine sciences are more important than ever—with oceans rising and the proliferation of toxic algae and pollutions. To ensure Georgia College students are prepared, and to take advantage of faculty knowledge and expertise in this field, the university will open a new Aquatic Sciences Center (ASC) by fall 2022.

“We are seeing significant changes in our global climate that’s been rapidly accelerating in the last decade,” said Dr. Indiren Pillay, chair of biological and environmental sciences.

These changes are making significant differences in our marine environment from marine microorganisms to marine animals and the introduction of pollution, including temperature pollution where slight warming of the oceans is creating different ecosystems.
– Dr. Indiren Pillay
“These changes are making significant differences in our marine environment,” he said, “from marine microorganisms to marine animals and the introduction of pollution, including temperature pollution where slight warming of the oceans is creating different ecosystems.”

Ecological changes like increasing incidences of red tides and agal blooms are just some issues that could be studied at the new center. Microbiologists are concerned, Pillay said, because pathogens normally low in numbers are rapidly increasing and, in some cases, causing disease.

Out of 27 faculty in Georgia College’s Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, about a third are linked in some way to water-related topics—both marine and freshwater. Faculty include Drs. Dave Bachoon, Andrei Barkovskii, Christopher Burt, Melanie DeVore, Greg Glotzbecker, Kalina Manoylov, Matt Milnes, Christine Mutiti, Sam Mutiti, Allison VandeVoort, David Weese and Kris White.

The new Aquatic Sciences Center will harness their knowledge and expertise under one umbrella. Existing strengths will be combined, and faculty will be encouraged to collaborate more fully, sharing equipment and ideas, Pillay said.

“Leveraging all this into a center will give us a unified mission and a unified approach, where we can train students in real-life applications of what we’re teaching in the classrooms and labs,” he said.

A director will soon be selected to oversee the center, along with a research technician. With a centralized administration and structure, Pillay hopes the center will be a platform for more graduate and undergraduate research, additional grant writing, student training and community engagement. The new center will also allow for the creation of summer research programs for students.

Currently, the center is functional with a nominal physical presence in Herty Hall.

When that building is renovated, Pillay hopes custom changes will be made to accommodate the new Aquatics Sciences Center—alongside the current Observatory, Planetarium and the William P. Wall Museum of Natural History.

Numerous funding initiatives are underway. The university administration has already funded the construction of a water table, which should be completed by the end of the year. In addition, ASC faculty member, Dr. Dave Bachoon, already has two funded ASC-related research projects.

In conjunction with the Aquatic Sciences Center, a new concentration in marine biology has been added to the curriculum, as well.

Any sort of center of research or excellence, such as the Aquatic Sciences Center, is unusual for a school our size. But the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences has a significant footprint on campus—in terms of the number of faculty and the number of students we cater to. So, the center is a natural conclusion. It’ll elevate the visibility of the work we’re already doing and provide administrative support that will enable faculty to spend more time training and mentoring students in water-related research.

Some faculty who will contribute:

•    Dr. Dave Bachoon has worked more than 20 years on numerous projects related to water quality, both marine and freshwater.  He trains his students to determine if a water body is polluted, if it contains harmful bacteria and how to identify the source of pollution. He’s published over 25 research papers on fecal pollution and pathogenic bacteria like Leptospira, E. coli, and H. pylori in Georgia and the Caribbean.  
•    Dr. Andrei Barkovskii works on fish and shellfish bacteria that are harmful to humans and marine organisms. Previously, his students surveyed sources of bacteria in water, sediment and oysters. They developed a method to remove harmful bacteria from water using kaolin products. Next, Barkovskii and his students will research emerging shellfish and fish pathogens in Georgia waters and how climate change strengthens and spreads pathogens.
•    For nearly 20 years, Dr. Melanie DeVore has taken students to the Bahamas to study its unique ecosystem of beaches, coral reefs, marshes and mangrove swamps. Students participate in an educational outreach sea camp for Bahamian children. DeVore also does extensive outreach in schools and for the public, talking about climate change. Her students are currently working with Stonerose Interpretive Center in California, which has a collection of 48-million-year-old fossils from the Eocene period.
•    Dr. Kalina Manoylov is an aquatic ecologist studying water quality with algae. She researches diverse, plant-like organisms that are important for the health of all water systems. Her students use algal taxonomy and community traits to determine effects of a wastewater treatment plant near Oconee River Greenway in Milledgeville. Two other sites associated with the Savannah River have been studied long term—the tidal part of the River at Port Wentworth, Georgia, and Three Runs Creek, a blackwater tributary on the border of South Carolina that’s a hot spot of biodiversity. These areas are being studied to understand effects of dredging in the Savannah River estuary and changes in biodiversity at different grades.
•    Dr. Samuel Mutiti’s research focuses on hydrology and water quality. His students work to find contaminants that effect water quality and aquatic organisms. They look for ways to remediate and treat contaminated water. They also study saltwater intrusions in coastal areas and the potential threat on macroinvertebrates. Students work with contaminants like microplastics, lead, selenium, bacteria, sediments and salt. Field sites include local water bodies and coastal island areas like Sapelo, St. Simons, Tybee,and Hilton Head. Student research also takes place at Lake Lanier in the Atlanta area and international sites in Zambia and Kenya. His undergraduates are currently working on a water filtration system to remove lead and other heavy metals from drinking water. They’re also identifying the prevalence and abundance of microplastics in Georgia aquatic environments.
•    Dr. David Weese’s lab uses molecular tools, like DNA, to answer ecological questions about aquatic organisms. In the past, his students used DNA sequences to identify invasive species of tilapia in Hawaii and screened natural populations of Hawaiian tilapia for bacterial infections. Currently, they’re investigating the population genetics of several species of local crayfish in the Oconee River Basin and utilizing environmental DNA to identify rare, endangered and invasive species in Oconee River. Weese is excited the center will be used to “train the next generation of aquatic scientists.”
•    Dr. Kris White identifies and describes marine amphipod crustaceans, a shrimplike organism. By studying their number, interactions and wellbeing, her students can use amphipods to monitor the health of aquatic environments. Students recently described marine amphipod diversity in Panama and are identifying the diversity of aquatic macroinvertebrates in freshwater lakes around Milledgeville. White’s excited the new center will have space for an aquarium and a wet table for live organisms.

These are examples of the exciting research that will be done at the new Aquatics Sciences Center, along with new initiatives. The center will “provide more student opportunities for high-quality transformative research experiences and foster collaboration with outside organizations,” Dr. Sam Mutiti said.

Ultimately, it all boils down to the students and training them to become “better stewards of our communities,” Pillay said.

“This fits into everything we do at Georgia College,” Pillay said. “Many faculty involved in this project are highly productive with large graduate and undergraduate labs. That’s an indication of the type of productivity we have for water quality and water analysis. Therefore, this center is a natural transition.”