Exploring the life aquatic

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- by Su Byron

As a research scientist, Kate Hubbard, Ph.D. studies the mysteries of harmful algal blooms with a fearlessly independent mind. This approach was one of her key lessons at New College.

Her current work at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWC-FWRI) spans the disciplines of ecology, physiology, molecular biology and oceanography. She has also been instrumental in exploring the impact of the recent Piney Point wastewater leak.

“My New College education allowed me to take classes that were interesting to me,” Hubbard said. “I was free to invent my own curriculum, and that’s basically what I do now as a research scientist.”

What first drew her to this field? Hubbard traces her love of the life aquatic to her childhood experience.

Growing up, she would spend her summers with her family on the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. She observed the river’s fluctuations of water level, seaweed and clarity. The riverine ecosystem was a dynamic one. Hubbard didn’t have the scientific terminology to describe it then, but she could see it with her own eyes. And it fascinated her.

That fascination led Hubbard to develop an appreciation of the life sciences. She majored in biology during her undergraduate studies at New College. But the direction of her life’s work gradually came into focus. She dropped a human genetics course mid-semester and switched to an Independent Study Project (ISP) in plant evolution.

Her adviser (Professor Sandra Gilchrist, Ph.D.) noticed Hubbard’s fascination with plants of the sea.

“She asked me, ‘Have you thought about oceanography?’,” Hubbard recalled. “My reply was, ‘What’s oceanography?’”

Hubbard would soon find out. With Gilchrist’s encouragement, her independent investigations increasingly concentrated on the life of the sea. After graduating from New College, Hubbard went on to earn master’s and Ph.D degrees in biological oceanography at the University of Washington. She now puts that knowledge to work at the FWC, where, since 2016, she has led the harmful algal bloom monitoring and research program, which has strong ties to state aquaculture management. Hubbard is also a guest investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

As Hubbard sees it, her New College education prepared her for this responsibility. Along with factual knowledge, she learned a flexible, self-directed way of thinking. That habit of mind is what it takes to be an independent investigator.

Hubbard’s area of research is still largely unmapped territory. What causes harmful algal blooms? There are multiple causes. Scientists understand some, but many are still a mystery. Researchers like Hubbard are figuring it out.

And Hubbard is also dealing with popular misconceptions. A lot of people think fertilizer runoff is entirely to blame. According to Hubbard, it’s a factor, but it’s not that simple. Many people think these blooms are always caused by human beings. However, they are actually a natural phenomenon, possibly dating back to prehistoric times.

According to Hubbard, algae aren’t always the villains. There are a few bad actors—like Karenia brevis (the culprit for periodic outbreaks of red tide)—but most are our friends.

“Marine algae give us a lot to be thankful for,” Hubbard said. “Fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe was produced by algae in the sea. They’re also a key component of the oceanic food chain.”

The causal mechanisms of many harmful algal blooms are still opaque. But humanity’s negative impact on aquatic ecosystems is crystal clear. The Piney Point disaster is just one recent and glaring example.

Piney Point is a defunct phosphate mine near Port Manatee on Tampa Bay. That operation left an odious legacy: massive retention ponds filled with phosphogypsum, a waste product of the phosphate mining process. To make matters worse, the site’s current owner added wastewater from a dredging project to the ponds. In March, the largest pond sprang a leak—and threatened to engulf surrounding neighborhoods with a catastrophic, deadly flood. To prevent that, the State of Florida authorized the release of more than 400 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay.

Hubbard has been part of a research team exploring the spill’s ongoing impact. She describes it as a simple question with no simple answer.

“Tampa Bay is a dynamic system, and algae and nutrients are very complex,” Hubbard said. “Once they enter the bay, they don’t stay in one place. There’s a cascade effect, and many different things can happen.”

Urgent scientific research is part of the cause-effect loop. When harmful algal blooms erupt or wastewaters flood, scientists spring into action. It’s a necessary response to crisis. But Hubbard would like to move away from “reactive mode.”

She envisions a continual monitoring of algal populations under the sea (that’s already starting to happen, thanks to emerging technology). This includes the Imaging FlowCytobot (IFCB), a submersible tube that captures high-resolution images of suspended particles.

The University of South Florida and Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium also employ undersea robotic gliders resembling torpedoes. This adds up to real-time data gathered in situ. Combined with computer modeling programs, that raw data can paint an accurate picture of the complex web of algal life.

“We can say, ‘OK. These are the triggers and these are the mechanisms.’ We can move from reaction to anticipation,” Hubbard said.

Along with this high-tech response, Hubbard also favors a highly old-fashioned strategy: “Let nature be nature.”

“Harmful algal blooms are a natural phenomenon. Nature also has ways of cleaning them up,” Hubbard said. “Bivalves are filter feeders and act like underwater vacuum cleaners. Seagrasses and mangroves also utilize nutrients, and provide important habitat and food sources. Restoration efforts to return our coastlines to a natural state could be the ideal solutions to help boost ongoing efforts to improve water quality. These combined efforts may, in turn, make us more resilient to harmful algal blooms, and ideally help lessen the intensity and frequency of future impacts.”

Hubbard’s research combines big-picture thinking with patient, granular research in the real world. It all depends on an independent mind venturing into the unknown. Hubbard credits this way of thinking to Gilchrist and other New College mentors.

“It all goes back to my New College training,” Hubbard said. “I learned to explore what I’m most deeply interested in. I’m still doing that today, and I’m deeply grateful.”

Su Byron is the communications specialist for the New College Foundation.