The Blue & Gray Press

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

UMW student and professor research natural oil seeps firsthand in Gulf trip

3 min read
By EMILY HOLLINGSWORTH UMW student and professor take trip to lead photochemical research on natural oil seeps Matt Walters, senior and double chemistry and Spanish major, slept in a ship cabin with two roommates. There was also a lab with a chemical shelf. Above the lab, however was the ship’s deck.


Matt Walters, senior and double chemistry and Spanish major, slept in a ship cabin with two roommates. There was also a lab with a chemical shelf. Above the lab, however was the ship’s deck.

In a lot of ways, the environment was like a college. It certainly was a learning experience, save it being in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

Walters went to the Gulf on a two-week research trip in June with chemistry professor Charlie Sharpless and researchers from the The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of California at Santa Barbara and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences to study how chemical and biological factors affects the breakdown of oil seeps, or natural oil springs where oil rises from the ground or from ocean floors.  Sharpless, Walters and the other researchers took the trip as part of a project led by The National Science Foundation.

Walters and Sharpless studied the photochemical breakdown of oil on the Gulf, or how oil breaks down on the surface of the ocean due to the sun. They were two of three chemists studying this phenomenon on board the research vessel, called the R/V Atlantis. The third chemist, Christopher Reddy, is a senior scientist for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who studies marine pollution and has spoken before Congress numerous times.

Reddy, Sharpless and Dave Valentine, researcher and professor of Earth science and biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, were lead investigators in the study.

In order to collect the oil, Walters and Sharpless took a smaller boat away from the R/V Atlantis and used nets to gather oil from the surface of the water. According to Walters, the nets were lined with Teflon. According to Sharpless, oil stays on top of the water and will stick easily to any material, even surprising ones, such as Teflon and the paint on ship hulls.

The experience of the boat was surreal, according to Walters.

“We didn’t see land the entire time,” Walters said. “We were hundreds of miles out.”

Natural oil seeps, according to Sharpless, differ from man-made oil spills such as the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010, which was considered one of the worst environmental disasters in history and sent about 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

The purpose of the research trip was to collect oil from natural seeps and see how the oil’s degradation, or the process that it is broken down, compares with the degradation of oil kept in controlled laboratory studies. Several other scientists on board studied other aspects of oil breakdown or were involved in locating and tracking oil seeps.

According to Walters, the collaboration between him, Sharpless and other researchers made him better able to know what to expect if he pursued a career in photochemical researching. “[I’m] better able to think critically, gave me a new outlook on how being a scientist would look,” Walters said.

The research did not stop when Sharpless and Walter came back from the Gulf. This semester, Walters and Sharpless have been taking the data of the oil samples they collected from the Gulf and putting the information together.

Once the information has been processed, Sharpless and Walters’ goal is to publish their research in the journal “Environmental Science and Technology.”

This was Sharpless’ first trip on a research ship, and according to him, he was not sure what to expect. For both Sharpless and Walters, the trip was a learning experience, and in turn, Sharpless and Walters have gathered the resources to educate other people about natural oil and continue to learn about its purpose and role in the environment.

“Getting the chance to go on the ship was a unique experience,” Sharpless said.


Editor’s Note: The original version of the story said that oil undergoes “denigration.” The correct term is “degradation,” the process that oil breaks down due to biological and chemical causes. There were also three chemists on the research trip rather than two. The third chemist is Christopher Reddy, senior scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. In addition, Teflon is a type of plastic, not metal. We are deeply sorry for the errors, and corrected them above. The title was also edited. Charlie Sharpless, associate professor of chemistry, contributed to the corrections.  – Emily Hollingsworth, News Editor.

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