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Internships Awarded through Program Established in Memory of Deepwater Horizon Victims

Tue, 12/14/2021 - 16:04pm | By: Margaret Ann Macloud

Four undergraduate students from across the southeast region studied various marine science-focused issues this summer with the support of an internship program established in memory of those who lost their lives in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Deepwater Horizon Memorial Undergraduate Internship Program was established by the Mississippi Based Restore Act Center of Excellence (MBRACE) to honor the individuals who perished in the 2010 explosion. The competitive program provides funding for undergraduate student interns to conduct research projects related to ongoing MBRACE-funded projects that address research gaps in water quality and oyster reefs and their sustainability. MBRACE is a consortium of Mississippi’s four research universities: The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) serves as the lead institution, and others include Jackson State University (JSU), Mississippi State University (MSU), and The University of Mississippi (UM).

“We are proud to offer an internship that honors those who perished in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and supports the next generation of marine scientists,” said Dr. Kelly Darnell, MBRACE director and assistant research professor at USM. “In this inaugural year of the internship program, the excellent group of undergraduate student interns conducted research in support of MBRACE’s mission to understand stressors and dynamics to our coastal ecosystems and support management of Mississippi’s oyster resources. We look forward to continuing to provide internship opportunities through this program in future years.”

The mission of MBRACE is to seek sound comprehensive science-and technology-based understanding of the chronic and acute stressors, both anthropogenic and natural, on the dynamic and productive waters and ecosystems of the northern Gulf of Mexico, and to facilitate sustainable use of the Gulf’s important resources.

Below is information for each student and a description of their project.


This project was paid for with federal funding from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, and the Mississippi Based RESTORE Act Center of Excellence under the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2012 (RESTORE Act). The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Treasury, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, or the Mississippi Based RESTORE Act Center of Excellence.


Joe BellMBRACE Project: Core Research Program

Student: Joe Bell, senior

School: USM (Ocean Engineering)

Advisor: Dr. Kemal Cambazoglu (USM)

Hometown: Waveland, MS

Project Description:

In-situ measurements for water quality monitoring, performed by USM’s School of Ocean Science and Engineering, are used to validate the Coupled-Ocean-Atmosphere-Wave-Sediment-Transport (COAWST) modeling system results for spatial and temporal variability of water quality as it is affected by the opening and closing of the Bonnet Carré Spillway (BCS) in the year 2019. New model runs were also set up to improve the accuracy of the model predictions.

Public Impact:

It is known that BCS openings alter and reduce oceanic variables, such as salinity and temperature of water, found in the Mississippi Sound and Bight, due to the cool, freshwater output of the Mississippi River. With well-calibrated and trusted modeling applications, improved strategies can be established regarding the spillway operations. This can better mitigate detrimental side-effects on the marine ecosystem and ultimately lead to more sustainable practices.

Note: Bell has submitted an abstract for the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting 2021 that is drawn from his internship research.

Update: Bell presented a poster titled  “Validation of COAWST Modeling System Results for 2019 Bonnet Carré Spillway Openings” in the Undergraduate Earth, Atmospheric, Ocean, and Space Science Research and Outreach Posters session on Wednesday December 15th. 


John Preston LilesMBRACE Project: Core Research Program

Student: John Preston Liles

School: University of Arkansas – Fort Smith (geosciences)

Advisor: Dr. Padmanava Dash (MSU)

Hometown: Fort Smith, AR

Project Description:

The main objective of this project is to assess the potential risk of harmful algal blooms to oysters and human health in the western Mississippi Sound. This objective will be accomplished through a set of integrated tasks: (1) Collection of water samples proximal to the Henderson Point and Pass Christian Oyster Reefs, (2) Laboratory analysis of the water samples for determining the phytoplankton community structure, algal toxins, chlorophyll a, phycocyanin, and nutrients, (3) Correlations of the combined dataset (newly collected dataset and the past data from 2015 and 2019) with river discharge, (4) Document the abundance of HABs in the western Mississippi Sound, and assess the risk of harmful algal blooms to oysters and potentially to higher trophic level organisms, including humans. Tasks 1 and 2 were completed this summer Liles completed this work during summer and fall 2021 and plans to present this work in conferences and subsequently publish this work in a peer-reviewed journal.

Public Impact:

Virtually every coastal country in the world is affected by harmful algal blooms (HABs) that has resulted in massive fish kills, loss of sales revenue primarily from fisheries and tourism, loss of commercially valuable and culturally vital shellfish resources, illness, and death in populations of protected marine species, and threats to human health. Oyster reef acreage as well as the volume and value of commercial oyster harvests in Mississippi waters have declined sharply in recent years, which has been attributed to a range of environmental stressors including impaired water quality. In 2019, the Mississippi Sound was affected by an unprecedented cyanobacterial bloom that resulted in the shutdown of the commercial oyster fishery, fish kills, bird deaths, and beach closures. In December 2015, a massive red tide bloom wrecked a similar havoc in the Mississippi Sound. Accordingly, the main goal of this project is to assess the potential risk of harmful algal blooms to oysters and human health in the western Mississippi Sound.


Jaycie KeylonMBRACE Project: Competitive Research Program: Impacts of water quality on oyster development to inform oyster reef restoration and sustainability on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Student: Jaycie Keylon, P1 Pharmacy (first professional year)

School: UM

Advisor: Dr. Deborah Gochfeld (UM)

Hometown: Harrison, AR

Project Description:

This project, which is also Keylon’s Honors thesis project, assesses how different environmental stressors affect disease susceptibility and stress responses in oysters. This entailed analyzing the expression of genetic biomarkers related to the presence or absence of disease or stress. 

Public Impact:

Oyster reefs provide essential ecosystem services to estuaries, including shoreline stability, increased biodiversity, improved water quality, and economic value to the community. Unfavorable environmental conditions, such as low salinity, increasing seawater temperature, hypoxia or ocean acidification may impact oyster susceptibility to diseases. By understanding how these stressors interact, we can do our part to try to reduce environmental impacts on the oysters and help preserve these important marine ecosystems.  


Talon WashingtonMBRACE Project: Competitive Research Program: Examining Rare Earth Elements in the Mississippi Sound

Student: Talon Washington, senior

School: University of New Orleans (biology)

Advisor: Dr. Alan Shiller (USM)

Hometown: New Orleans, LA

Project Description:

This project, which examines rare earth elements in the Mississippi Sound, is part of the larger project that involves examining evidence for input and impact of submarine groundwater discharge (SGD) in the Mississippi Sound. SGD is important because it is a hidden pathway of material input into coastal systems. These inputs include various chemical species that can affect the coastal ecosystem such as nutrients, metals, and oxygen-depleting substances. The rare earth elements (REEs) are a group of heavy elements that are not actually “rare” and have many applications in modern society such as in magnets, catalysts, and medical imaging. The REEs can also be used to study various ocean processes. In fact, groundwater is often enriched in REEs, so these elements can be used as tracers of SGD inputs to the coastal system. During her summer internship, Washington learned how to collect SGD samples for REE analysis. She then analyzed a suite of samples previously collected and put together a short presentation describing what she found. It does appear that the larger project will be able to use her data to further efforts to describe the input of SGD into the Mississippi Sound and what the impact of the SGD is on critical issues such as oyster survival and oxygen depletion.


Public Impact: This will help describe and locate inputs of SGD in the Mississippi Sound.

** MBRACE Project: Competitive Research Program: Optical Observation for Oyster Larvae (O3L)

Advisor: Dr. Xiaodong Zhang (USM)

** This project is recruiting an undergraduate intern for research during the 2021-22 academic year.