Samantha Joye endured a firestorm of criticism for her research on the BP oil spill. Five years later — and having been proven correct — she is still focusing on facts.
On a gorgeous June day in Gulfport, Miss., the white sand beaches have a pristine, swept-clean look-in part a legacy of the devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina. That natural disaster seems far away now in the bright hot sunshine bearing down on this city's massive namesake seaport, where enormous container ships, and a gigantic yellow tanker labeled with the Dole brand, are docked, waiting to bring bananas and other goods ashore.
Beneath these gently lapping waters, however, lie the unseen and still to some extent unknown results of another catastrophe, one inarguably and directly man-made-the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, which killed 11 people and discharged at least 5 million barrels (about 210 million gallons) of crude oil and 250,000 metric tons of natural gas into the Gulf of Mexico.
A month after the explosion, UGA marine scientist Samantha Joye was in the Gulf, documenting the immediate results of the spill. Her research would have a major impact, shaping the international dialogue surrounding the event. In the five years since, Joye and the university have led multimillion-dollar research efforts to understand the fate of the oil, its impact on the ecosystem and the recovery of the Gulf-questions with significant economic implications for coastal states and industry as well as the potential to guide environmental policies around the world.
At the Port of Gulfport, a throng of kids from local Boys and Girls Clubs sit squinting on a broiling asphalt jetty near two bobbing vessels dwarfed by the commercial ships. A slight, ponytailed woman in khakis and bright blue polo shirt demonstrates a makeshift robot, constructed of PVC tubing and a small aquarium motor, and sets it off to burble around a tub of water. "This helps investigate what's under the surface," she tells them. "Now, who wants to help make one?" "Me! ME! MEEEEEE!" the kids yell, arms waving, hot day forgotten, as they race to participate.
Joye, known universally as Mandy, has that effect on people. Despite numerous scientific accolades (in 2014 she was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; in 2015 she won a Southeastern Conference Faculty Achievement Award), she is as interested in making sure everyone understands the consequences of information revealed by her work as she is in unearthing it.
For more than 20 years, Joye has studied the natural seepage of oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico. When the Deepwater Horizon exploded, she was one of few scientists who had extensive prior knowledge of the ecosystem to compare to what she saw in the aftermath of the accident. Joye led UGA's comprehensive response to the crisis, fulfilling a critical role by providing up-to-date, impartial information to national and regional leaders, the disaster response team and the public. A year later she was named science director of the Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf (ECOGIG) program, a research consortium including 29 investigators from 14 institutions. Last fall, Joye and her team were awarded an additional $18.8 million, three-year research grant.
Today, on World Oceans Day, Joye has invited the press to tour the research vessels, Endeavor and Point Sur, that she and other scientists and students use to reveal what's happening under the deep blue waters. Journalists and photographers, as well as two documentary film crews, will follow her all day, but Joye has insisted on also inviting local youth to tour the boats and meet the ECOGIG team. "The kids are our only hope," says the UGA Athletic Association Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of marine sciences. "Adults are set in their ways. We love our SUVs and air conditioning too much. Too many people are disconnected from the natural world."
That doesn't mean Joye hasn't tried talking to the group normally described as "grown-ups." In the aftermath of the Deepwater explosion, she was interviewed, quoted or featured in more than 4,000 news stories. Later she would testify before Congress and help author a report on the damage.
Joye was one of the first scientists to investigate the disaster. She did her research firsthand, taking samples with her group on the research vessel Walton Smith, breathing acrid, burning air as they scooped up dead jellyfish and birds along with oil-tinged water. Their findings would contradict what the public had heard from BP CEO Tony Hayward ("The oil is on the surface. There aren't any plumes") and the U.S. government's National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chief, Jane Lubchenco, who initially insisted Joye's team's research findings were inconclusive. Lubchenco would change her statements in a press conference just prior to Joye's appearance before Congress: Thick oil and gas plumes did indeed exist, 1,000 meters below the surface. Joye questioned the effectiveness of dispersants in removing the oil, rather than simply rendering it invisible. She described some parts of the seafloor to The New York Times as "a graveyard."
Her reports drew the fire of an angry horde of skeptics who claimed she had sought the spotlight and exaggerated her findings to burnish her own career and fame. Through it all, Joye remained steadfast, reporting what she knew to an incredulous nation. The issues involved revealed how little scientists know about the ocean-"much less than the moon or Mars, and it's here on Earth," says Joye-and how the Gulf ecosystems would respond to the spill. She was criticized not only by industry and government, but also those who pressured her to cross the line from advocacy to activism. The difference between the two is "not even a fine line," says Joye. "It's a four-lane highway. I believe I'm a responsible advocate. The best way to influence policy is to publish papers that document important things that then drive science and policy changes. I feel I can do much more as a scientist than as an activist."
Sylvia Earle, NOAA's former chief scientist under President George H.W. Bush, takes a few moments away from a crammed schedule on the eve of a trip to the Arctic to talk about Joye's early findings. "She was compelled to share that evidence," says Earle, also founder of engineering firm Deep Ocean Exploration and Research and nonprofit Mission Blue. "A lesser person might have knuckled under. The pressure that was imposed upon her for speaking the truth in a very clear, unbiased way has made her a hero in the eyes of those who respect integrity and the truth. It's hard when your job and reputation are on the line, and she just says, 'Look, I tell you what I see. I'm telling the public what the world needs to know.'"
Lindley Mease, a senior research analyst for the Stanford University-affiliated Center for Ocean Solutions, sought out Joye for a project on better ways stakeholders, academics and government agencies can prepare and respond to environmental emergencies. "She's been a key communicator in the Gulf and in Washington, D.C.," Mease says. "She has provided pivotal and insightful information. It's been fantastic to work with her and have a voice that is both independent and self-possessed."
Christopher Martens, William B. Aycock Distinguished Professor of Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC), was a member of Joye's Ph.D. advisory committee. He describes her as the best kind of leader. "It's common for people to view persons at the front of the pack as wearing capes, like Superman or Wonder Woman ...," he says. "I'd rather describe Mandy as like a point guard [on a basketball team]. She's a leader who runs directly at a challenge, and enthusiastically goes after tough things, because she knows they potentially bring fruitful discoveries. And she wants to bring the rest of the team with her."
"When I've been on cruises with her," he says, "she was always the hardest-working person on the ship."
On an early fall semester morning, Joye is editing a paper in her basement office in UGA's Marine Sciences Building, which houses the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences' marine sciences department. As a planned 30-minute interview stretches to over two hours, Joye slowly reveals herself in ways large and small, from a scrappy upbringing in a small town on the border between North and South Carolina to being a bullied "shrinking violet" in high school, and finally deciding she would overcome her shyness and reinvent herself at UNC, where she earned three degrees. By turns wryly humorous, emphatically serious, and occasionally emotional, she describes the events after the spill and her current projects with a natural storyteller's ease.
Her office is lined with photos of her husband, UGA Marine Sciences Associate Professor Christof Meile, and three daughters, Sophie, Nicole and Zoë, and with some of the awards that she has only recently framed and hung. In a corner, a bright quilt and toys await her daughters. The girls are never far from her mind, not only personally, but as representatives of the next generations she believes will inherit the problems we've left them. Joye says they know the ocean as a close friend who is sick. "Have you fixed the ocean yet?" Sophie would often ask her in the days after the spill.
Five years after the disaster, Joye's team's most recent research (and the paper she is working on today) only confirms in greater detail her initial concerns about the plumes and dispersants. "This whole question of whether chemical dispersants are an effective way to stimulate oil degradation is fundamentally important," she says. "They're considered the first line of defense, but there may be other negative consequences on fish larvae and coral larvae, even on the very microorganisms that degrade oil. And, in some cases, they do not stimulate oil degradation. It's possible they are doing harm as well as good."
It's impossible to know much about the ocean without studying it, and the costs of research vessels are "enormously expensive," Joye says. The Alvin submersible and its attendant ship and crew is "about $85,000 a day or thereabouts," she says. "You've got to write a hell of a good proposal for a 20-day cruise, and you might end up with five [days]." If her $18.8 million grant sounds like a lot of money, she points out that over its three-year span, $2-$3 million per year will go for the cost of the ships and crews and vehicles alone, and much of the rest is split among investigators. "I'm not rich," she says succinctly, pushing up her taped-together glasses. And she will retain her independent voice: The ECOGIG grants were awarded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, an independent entity established to manage the $500 million fund set up by BP-the oil company leasing the Deepwater Horizon at the time of the explosion-to pay for independent scientific research.
In addition to ongoing research, Joye is also spearheading several planned media-based outreach projects. She believes that filmmaking will be her team's "signature mark" and the most effective way to educate and empower a global environmental movement, she says. "When people start to realize that climate change impacts were hitting the proverbial fan decades ago and that the consequences, such as coral bleaching, are now globally apparent they will wake up. That will start a grass-roots effort, not driven by politics, but driven by people. These people will demand action." The changes she envisions start small, like walking instead of driving and turning down the heat during winter. But the collective consequences are large.
"During the oil spill, I spent many wakeful nights wondering, 'Why exactly am I in the middle of this firestorm?' " she says. "Early one morning, I realized that people are listening. A lot of people. With that came the awareness that I had an opportunity, a voice, but with this opportunity came an immense responsibility. You can't walk away from that. This is not just about oil spills, it's about climate change and environmental resilience-from recycling and plastics and pollution and low oxygen zones and overfishing-all of these critically important issues of our time."
"It's about my kids, and all the kids," she says. "It's about securing our future. For me, that's the silver lining of the horrible dark gloomy cloud that was the oil spill. I realized that I can make a difference. I believe that I was meant to make a difference. I think I have the ability and the opportunity to do it. And if I keep at it, I'm going to help light the fire that changes our course toward one that makes the world more ecologically secure and the future more in balance with nature."
— Krista Reese
(This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Georgia Magazine)