2011-06-16 / News

Longtime professor, graduate program celebrates 50 years

By Ken Shane


Ted Smayda Ted Smayda The University of Rhode Island will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Graduate School of Oceanography with a series of public events. The events will take place at the school’s Bay Campus in Narragansett on Saturday, June 25, and Sunday, June 26.

Longtime Jamestown resident Ted Smayda is a research professor of oceanography at the graduate school. Smayda was born in Pennsylvania, but when he was 10 years old, his parents moved the family to Connecticut, and that is where his interest in the ocean truly began.

Smayda got his undergraduate degree at Tufts University, and then came to URI to study for his master’s degree. It was during this time that he got his first look at phytoplankton.

“I couldn’t believe their beauty, and their role in the ocean, beginning the food web,” Smayda said. “Right then and there I changed my interest from the marine animal world to microscopic algae.”

Smayda was accepted in the doctorate program at URI, but received a Fulbright scholarship and went to study in Norway instead. “The conditions were so extraordinary that it was one of the central places to study phytoplankton,” he said. Eventually he returned to the U.S. and took a job at URI in 1959.

“When I got here, the laboratory had burned down,” Smayda recalled. “So the Narragansett Marine Laboratory was housed at the Pentecostal Historic Society building in Kingston, which was a former jail. They built a new lab and two years later it started to convert from a sleepy marine laboratory to the Graduate School of Oceanography.”

Smayda is a world authority on harmful algae blooms in the ocean. He said that there are a number of species of phytoplankton that are starting to bloom and are discoloring the ocean water. “A number of them have toxins that go into the food web, either shellfish or fin fish,” he said. “They cause nasty illnesses.”

“It’s the global expansion of this that has my attention and involvement,” Smayda added. “I’m trying to understand what’s happening to the global coastal ocean that’s resulting in the shift to these nasty, harmful species.”

During his time at URI, Smayda has also conducted a “time series” on plankton and habitat in Narragansett Bay. The series began in 1959 and continued until 1997. It is the longest quantitative time series ever done in coastal waters. “It’s very important because it will help in terms of the management of Narragansett Bay,” Smayda said. “It’s the baseline to determine what the effect of climate change is.”

His studies have revealed some of the problems that are unfolding in Narragansett Bay. According to Smayda, it’s getting warmer and winter temperatures are 3 to 4 degrees warmer. “The wintertime is the primary growth season for the phytoplankton for the food web,” he said. “It’s now been shifting to the summer. The species that are out in the bay are shifting. There’s a major regime shift in the bay. The plankton populations are changing.”

The bay’s problems are exacerbated by its location. The waters south of Cape Cod are called temperate waters. North of the Cape are boreal waters that tend to be colder. “It’s exactly at these transition zones that if there are climate changes you pick up the signal,” Smayda said.

The state of Rhode Island is reducing the amount of nitrogen that is introduced into the nitrogensensitive bay by using treatment plants.

“The big question is whether this is going to have a beneficial effect, and if so, where in the bay?” Smayda asked. “It may even have a depressing effect in some areas because we do see less plankton, meaning less food for fish and shellfish.”

One of the big questions that oceanographers face these days is the extent of human contributions to the toxic algae blooms that are spreading through the oceans. “Everyone is looking for the smoking gun,” Smayda said. “There is a correlation with high nutrient levels in some areas, but you can go to the Gulf of Mexico, which doesn’t have that much nutrient, and there are enormous blooms.”

Despite the fact that the news isn’t particularly good in terms of the state of our oceans, Smayda is still enthusiastic about the challenges of oceanography. “It’s still a young, pioneering field. Every day is like a new day. It doesn’t get stale,” he said.

Smayda has mentored 32 graduate students during his time at URI, and 28 of them have done theses on Narragansett Bay. A number of his students and colleagues will be returning for the 50th anniversary celebration, and to pay tribute to Professor Smayda.

“I feel incredibly honored,” he said.

Speaking of the upcoming celebration, Smayda said, “It’s gone from a sleepy place to a worldclass institution. We can make major contributions to helping the people of Rhode Island understand Narragansett Bay and manage it.”

He continued: “The public would be welcome to see how this has gone from what it was to what it’s become in 50 years. It’s a success story for the state.”

On June 25, there will be a Science Saturday Open House at the Bay Campus between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. That night there will be a reception and dinner, followed by a blues concert on Sunday afternoon. For more information on the anniversary events, visit the URI Web site.

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