July 23, 2014  

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Southern Miss Takes Lead Role in New Research Center of Excellence

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Incoming University of Southern Mississippi President Dr. Rodney Bennett discusses the Center for Gulf Studies' designation as a Research Center of Excellence during a news conference held March 7 at the Gulf Park campus in Long Beach. Flanking Bennett is Gov. Phil Bryant, left, and IHL Commissioner Dr. Hank Bounds. (University Communications photo)

When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, researchers from The University of Southern Mississippi were among the first to begin documenting and assessing the scope of the nation’s worst oil spill.

The University’s renowned expertise in the field of marine science played an integral role in determining the environmental and economic ramifications from the spill on the northern Gulf Coast.

Continued monitoring and research led to the formation of the Center for Gulf Studies (CGS) earlier this year. And on March 7, the new center assumed even greater responsibility as Gov. Phil Bryant officially announced that GCS had been designated a Research Center of Excellence.

“Southern Miss is delighted to be leading the effort to better understand this economically important body of water and to work with other universities and agencies to provide guidance and long-term understanding of the Gulf’s complex ecosystem,” said Dr. Gordon Cannon, vice provost for Research at Southern Miss. “We are uniquely positioned for the type of sophisticated research that will be required as we go forward.”

Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Congress established the RESTORE Act to direct Clean Water Act penalties collected from responsible parties to the states impacted by the oil spill. The RESTORE Act includes a 2.5 percent funding designation to establish Research Centers of Excellence.

Dr. Monty Graham, chair of the Department of Marine Science at Southern Miss and CGS acting director, anticipates that the center will receive approximately $4 million initially from the fine allocation. He credits Bryant and Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Executive Director Trudy Fisher with establishing the first Center of Excellence among the five Gulf states.

“For many years Southern Miss has been Mississippi’s recognized leader in marine science, and this Center of Excellence designation further entrenches that position,” said Graham. “The northern Gulf Coast has been under-represented and under-served compared to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but we intend to bring more attention and research to that important area through our efforts at the Center for Gulf Studies.”

The Center for Gulf Studies represents a partnership between Southern Miss and the state’s other research universities – Mississippi State University, the University of Mississippi and Jackson State University.

Administered through the Southern Miss Department of Marine Science at Stennis Space Center, CGS seeks to serve the people of Mississippi, the northern Gulf region and the country with a scientifically-based understanding of ecosystem status and trends (past to present, predictive) with special emphasis on improved forecasting abilities to ensure sustainable coastal and ocean ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico.

 The results of studies conducted by the center will be shared with other scientists, agencies and research groups to enhance coastal resource management and develop practical applications that can drive technology innovation and business development.

“Southern Miss has a rich tradition in marine and coastal research excellence, and I applaud the vision and actions of Governor Bryant and Director Fisher as they continue to keep Mississippi's science and technology capabilities at the center of environmental and economic recovery in the Gulf region,” said incoming Southern Miss President Dr. Rodney Bennett. “I see a bright future as our university and this institutional partnership continue to lead at the cutting edge of meaningful ocean science."

Through the CGS, Mississippi’s residents and industries will be provided with a powerful new ocean observing and forecasting system for improved use of the ocean in a manner analogous to atmospheric weather forecasting. The resulting trend information and predictions will supply decision-makers and residents with a unique capability to prepare for and respond to changes in the ecosystem.

“The BP oil spill highlighted our need for a better understanding of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem,” said Southern Miss Provost Dr. Denis Wiesenburg. “As the designated marine science university for Mississippi, this new center will enable Southern Miss to focus resources on the ocean in our back yard.”

The Northern Gulf of Mexico faces a number of priority issues, which include:

  • Water quality and human health
  • Habitat conservation and restoration
  • Ecosystem integration and assessment
  • Nutrients and nutrient impacts
  • Coastal community resilience
  • Environmental education and outreach
  • Coast hazards and risk assessment
  • National security
  • Marine transportation
  • Ocean resource and resource management
  • Ecosystem health
  • Climate variability and sea level rise
  • Oil spills and other human disasters
  • Technology development

Graham notes that details are still being finalized with regard to protocols and procedures within the universities’ partnership. But there are no gray areas where the educational component of the new consortium is concerned.

“One of our primary goals with this venture is to train new scientists,” said Graham. “Students will be at the forefront of exciting research both on the undergraduate and graduate levels. This center will afford the opportunity to knock down some barriers that have existed for a long time and offer a better world view for everyone involved.”

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