Professor of Toxicology and Molecular Epidemiology John Wise is a man on a mission.

The statistics alone from the 2010 University of Southern Maine and Ocean Alliance research expedition to research the effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster are mind-boggling.

They racked up a total of 115 days aboard the 93-foot research vessel Odyssey; more than 6,500 miles traveled; some 52 whale biopsies, 466 fish samples (from 82 fish), 127 vials of invertebrate samples and 9 vials of sargassum weed collected; 90 liters of seawater collected at 15 sites; and 6.3 kilograms of sediment collected from another 10 sites.

Now, nearly 12 weeks after the completion of the voyage, research continues in USM’s Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology on Falmouth Street here in Portland.

This remains the only project anywhere that is designed to develop whale cell lines required to research the impact of the massive spill on whales.

EFFECTS OF OIL

Essentially, Dr. Wise, the scientific director of the expedition, is growing whale cells from the tissue samples and exposing the cells to toxins to determine the impact of oil and chemical dispersants on whale DNA.

Any molecular damage could lead to cancer or reproductive problems, over time, that could easily decimate the Gulf’s whale population.

Preliminary findings also show that the dispersants used to break up the oil could have an adverse affect on human cells.

Dr. Wise and his team will report their initial analysis this spring. Their findings will serve as a baseline for ongoing studies of the spill’s long-term impact.

In fact, he plans to return regularly to the Gulf over the next five to 10 years so that any long-term effects can be verified and quantified.

In addition to documenting toxicological and environmental issues, this project has already proven to be an unusual and transformative experience for all those onboard, including 14 Maine students.

Of those 14 students, USM undergrad chemistry major Matt Braun and Dr. Wise’s son, Johnny, who is working on a bachelor’s degree in biology, were aboard for the entire 115-day expedition.

They spent the summer and the fall spotting whales atop an 80-foot mast, conducting whale biopsies, and working in the onboard cell culture lab.

Matt and Johnny also registered for, and I am proud to report, successfully completed a full load of USM online courses during the fall 2010 semester.

Nothing captures the students’ perseverance, commitment, and thrill of discovery quite like their own voices.

Allow me to share with you an excerpt from one of Matt’s blog postings from late August.

“Being one of the cell culturists on the boat is a very rewarding job. About 10 days after the samples were put into culture, the cells began to grow out of the tissue pieces.

“Waiting for those cells to grow and finally seeing them under the microscope was like opening up presents on Christmas morning while snow was gently covering the ground in a fluffy blanket.

“Successfully growing whale cells on a boat is something that only a handful of people have ever done, and they were all on this trip!”

Ryan Duffy, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology, posted this blog in early August about his two weeks aboard the Odyssey: “This was easily two of the most interesting and exciting weeks of my life and I was nauseous 60 percent of the time.”

Dr. Wise himself somehow escaped seasickness and found the time to post blogs that documented each of the expedition’s 115 days.

I read them avidly, and they offer an informative, and yes, entertaining account of the often exciting, sometimes boring, yet always productive days at sea and in port.

YEARS OF WORK

In an October post directed more at the crew than anyone, he writes, “We have to look at and judge this expedition in its entirety not any 1 leg as a microcosm of it. Our nation had its worst environmental crisis.”

He continues, “We planned and hoped and made our best guesses at what to do. We knew then we were starting on what would be years of work.”

I am proud that this university, in collaboration with the Ocean Alliance, continues to assess the impact of the catastrophic BP oil spill.

The expedition has given us the opportunity to apply the university’s intellectual resources to a better understanding of this ecological disaster.

It also continues to provide our researchers and students hands-on experiences with a unique and historic project.

And as Dr. Wise so aptly pointed out, “We are not done yet!”

Selma Botman is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]