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Plotting a new course


With more than 60 percent of the world’s population living in close proximity to a coastline, the scientific community is paying greater attention to the impact humans and oceans have on each other. A University of Miami research center is bringing together oceanographers and the medical community to address this concern, employing strategies that could lead to much-needed solutions.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

The 20 bathers bobbing in the shallow surf at Virginia Key’s Hobie Beach weren’t there for pleasure. Carrying plastic jugs, which they filled with water samples, the bathers waded, splashed, and swam for several minutes before heading back to shore.

Waiting for them was an unlikely duo: an environmental engineer who would analyze the samples for dangerous microbes, and a physician/epidemiologist who would monitor the health of the bathers in the weeks to come to see if they came down with any skin, respiratory, or gastrointestinal illnesses.

Collaborations like this form the nucleus of the University of Miami’s Oceans and Human Health Center, one of only four federally funded entities of its kind in the nation. The three other centers are located at the University of Washington, the University of Hawaii, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Environmental Health Services have funded all four.

While each concentrates on a different coastal area (the scientists at Woods Hole, for example, primarily conduct studies of the Gulf of Maine), their premise is the same: build alliances of medical and oceanographic communities to study the consequences of our ever-growing interaction with the world’s oceans.

Sharon Smith, left, and Lora Fleming.

Sharon Smith, left, and Lora Fleming.


Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Miami-Dade County Health Department, and Florida International University also work with the center.

“I had never even thought about such a collaboration before I was approached about the idea by [Rosenstiel colleague] Pat Walsh,” says Sharon Smith, professor of marine biology and fisheries and co-director of the center. “So far, it’s been a perfect marriage.”

The marriage of multiple disciplines is not without its challenges. “An apple to an engineer, an oceanographer, or a genomics person is not the same,” says co-director Lora Fleming, a Miller School of Medicine professor of epidemiology and public health. “A lot of time can be spent on just trying to have a common language.”

But within such a diverse makeup of disciplines lies its strength. Before the birth five years ago of the center and its three sister entities, oceanographers and the medical community hadn’t done an effective job of joining forces, Fleming says. “Now, these parallel communities are being forced to work together rather than be separate,” she explains. And the collaborations have resulted in some enlightening discoveries.

Groundbreaking Studies

In the microbial study conducted at Hobie Beach, for example, “We were able to show for the first time that in this basically non-point source environment—meaning there’s no direct sewage input; it’s just runoff and human density and use by other animals, including dogs and birds—people got sick and reported illnesses from exposure to those waters. And they also had significantly more symptoms than the people who did not enter the water and just sat on the sand,” says Fleming, who partnered with College of Engineering environmental professor Helena Solo-Gabriele on the study. Their findings could result in improved recreational water quality monitoring in tropical and subtropical marine environments.

Fleming, educated at Yale and Harvard, has long studied how humans are impacted by environmental factors. For years she has studied how aerosolized Florida red tide toxins affect humans, showing that the harmful blooms of marine algae actually exacerbated the symptoms of a group of asthmatics living in Sarasota, Florida.

In another study conducted in collaboration with the center, Miller School associate professor of clinical pediatrics Lisa Plano investigated a possible connection between exposure to Staphylococcus aureus in South Florida coastal waters and an increased risk of infections in beachgoers.


A day at the beach: During the center's microbial investigation at Hobie Beach, study participants collected water samples that were analyzed for dangerous microbes.

Hurricane Katrina Investigation

But it was a study conducted in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast region that is arguably the center’s most important for demonstrating how oceans affect human health. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck, Solo-Gabriele and a team of researchers traveled to the area to conduct a study that documented public health risk and human exposure to both inhaled and ingested pathogens from sewage-contaminated floodwaters.

The study, a joint effort with two other Oceans and Human Health Centers and Louisiana State University, underscored the need for rapid environmental assessments after natural disasters, and illustrated how the interaction between oceans and human health is increasing due to greater numbers of people living near the coast. More than 60 percent of the world’s population lives within 75 miles of a coastline.

“We rely on the coastal areas more and more for both commerce and recreation, and yet we’re destroying them,” Fleming explains. “We’ve made them more vulnerable with the destruction of mangroves, which could mitigate the effects of extreme weather. Things that we dump in the ocean come back to haunt us. If we dump pollutants, they will come back in our food chain or come back to harm us because we use the waters recreationally.”

Though UM’s Oceans and Human Health Center doesn’t focus on global warming, which is being blamed for rising sea levels and spikes in extreme weather, the problem also is a concern that can be detrimental to the world’s oceans and human health.

Making sure that human health is part of the dialogue will help heighten attention to the problems faced by the world’s oceans, Fleming believes. “There are people who are very interested in the environment,” she says, “but if it doesn’t have a human health connection, you’re just not going to get their attention.”

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