Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dr. A. Quinton White: Five questions with...

Dr. A. Quinton White has been a staple of the Jacksonville educational community for more than three decades and currently serves as the Executive Director of the Marine Science Research Institute (MSRI). Since 1998, the MSRI, which began as collaboration between Jacksonville University, Duval County Public Schools, U.S Department of Energy and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, has been housed on the JU campus, and will soon be enhanced by a state-of-the-art facility.

A published author, a popular professor and a renowned expert on the
St. Johns River, Dr. White goes above and-beyond to share his knowledge. On May 15th, the MSRI will co-host a fun and interactive event entitled “Ripples on the River,” and in July 2011, he will be taking his expertise on the road when he travels with JU students and alumni to the Galapagos Islands for the sixth time.

Before this very exciting summer starts for Dr. White, the Dolphin Network was able to sit with him and discuss some of the issues of the day, as well as some of the exciting announcements that are in store for the JU campus.

1. To the general public, the topic of Marine Science has several key phrases associated with it ("environmental awareness," "water quality," "wildlife preservation," etc.). What are some topics and terminology heavily related, but not typically associated, with the program?

To many, I guess Marine Science (MSC) is just Environmental Science…with salt added. But in reality, it is much more, since it also includes the biological, chemical and physical processes of the world’s oceans, rivers and estuaries. The JU MSC major has focused on the St. Johns River (SJR) and its estuary (OK, all you MSC alumni---in unison—an estuary is a semi-enclosed body of water, open to the ocean and diluted with sea water….ok, not bad). We continue to focus on the SJR, but also work and study coastal ecosystems, coral reefs and other near shore environments.

Perhaps the latest topic that is also marine-related is the sustainability initiative that is gathering energy and momentum nation-wide. JU is also “Going Green.” Our new Marine Science Research Institute will be JU’s first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified building. We hope to achieve a GOLD certification. The biggest component of sustainability in relation to marine science is the impact of water consumption on marine environments. That topic is getting a lot more attention now, much more so than in the past. We are working on several issues relating to the environmental impact of water withdrawal from the SJR and the impact of dredging the SJR to 50 feet in order to accommodate post-PanaMax ships. These are the ships that will be able to use the new and much larger Panama Canal set to open in 2014. All of these topics will have a lasting impact on Jacksonville and the St. Johns River.

2. The JU Marine Science Program has graduated a number of outstanding students. What are some of the different career paths pursued by JU Alumni that have specialized in this field?

Our JU MSC majors have gone on to careers that range from Art (Glassblowing) to Zoology, with a wide variety in between, including pharmaceutical sales, health care, veterinarians and engineers. Our graduates hold positions with federal, state, regional and local government agencies, as well as private businesses and major corporations. Perhaps my biggest surprise over the years is the number of alumni who own their own businesses. It seems like we have lots who operate environmental consulting and engineering firms.

Plans are underway for a Marine Science reunion during Homecoming 2010 that coincides with the opening of the MSRI. So stay tuned and watch for details…

3. A hot topic of late is off-shore drilling. President Obama recently announced that new oil exploration will be conducted off the Atlantic coast and parts of the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Can you discuss some of the obstacles in developing this project safely?

I am opposed to offshore drilling due to the potential environmental impact. Despite the best of intentions and engineering, mistakes and accidents will happen. Just last week, 11 people were killed on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico…and it continues to burn. Last month, I was in Mobile Bay where oil platforms are within swimming distance of the shore. Oil leaks are frequent and potentially hazardous to marine life. There are better and less environmentally damaging ways to get energy for the U.S. than to, as the phrase has been coined, “drill-baby-drill”.

4. The Marine Science Research Institute will be the next step in the evolution of JU's Marine Science Program. How the project is coming and what will be some of the key features?

Now you really have hit my HOT BUTTON! As I mentioned earlier, we have almost completed a new LEED-certified Marine Science Research Institute (MSRI) as part of a planned complex focusing on the St. Johns River estuary and coastal marine ecosystems. We are on time, on budget, and in fact, just received a million dollar gift from the Bert and Maggie Reid estate. This is the same couple that helped fund the Reid Medical Sciences Building about 20 years ago.

The goal of the university in establishing the new institute is to provide a premier biological and marine environmental research and educational facility for northeast Florida. JU has offered a marine science major for over 30 years, and plans to offer a Masters level degree in marine science beginning fall 2011. The MSRI is a multidiscipline facility that will house the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Millar Wilson Laboratory for Chemical Research, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Laboratory for Northeast Florida. The institute has also partnered with Terry Parker High School to offer a career academy focused on marine environmental sciences within the Lucy Gooding Educational Center.

The 32,000 sq. ft., two-story building will open July 2010 and will provide research opportunities for JU students, visiting high school and college students, scholars, scientists and engineers engaged in research involving local, state, and national ecosystems. The first floor area will be for working with live specimens in ambient temperatures as well as showers and restrooms. The second level will have teaching and research laboratories, classrooms, faculty offices and administrative space along with a small kitchen, conference room/library and screened observation deck. The marine science laboratories will also convert into a larger multi-purpose conference room. The river front location will also allow easy access to the St. Johns River estuary. Some of the sustainable features include rain water harvesting for wastewater processing and boat wash down, an innovative wetlands for storm water treatment, energy efficient design, and extensive use of recycled building materials.

What this means is that individuals and groups will be afforded opportunities for hands-on research on environmental and ecological issues confronting the St. Johns River as well as for gathering information on the life, history and current condition of the river itself. The knowledge gained from the research accomplished at JU will have a national benefit.

5. You have been involved in some level of higher education for more than 30 years. Can you discuss some of the biggest changes you have witnessed in the college community over those years?

Without a doubt it is the impact of technology. When I first arrived on campus in 1976, in the Biology office there was one phone and zero desktop computers for 6 faculty. We got an Apple IIe in about 1983 that we all shared. Now, I can sit at my desk and monitor - in real time - the environmental conditions around the world. I suspect that I have more computer power in my laptop than the main frame I used for my doctoral research. Now I get upset if I can’t see the weather radar on my cell phone. Communication has become almost instantaneous and if someone doesn’t respond to an email within a few hours, we wonder why. Long gone are the days of telephone tag and letter writing. But I would not go back for anything. And I wonder what someone like me will say in 2050?

For more information on the JU Marine Science Research Institute, visit their webpage HERE.

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