Our Heroes: Chris Gobler, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences Stony Brook University

Chris Gobler has always had an appreciation for the natural environment and a fervent fascination with science, especially biology. Some years ago after hearing a Long Island bayman’s firsthand account of the devastating impact that Brown Tide had on the regional clam fishery and, subsequently, the livelihood of local baymen, Chris was inspired to pursue both a M.S. and a Ph.D. from Stony Brook University on Long Island studying harmful algal blooms.

Today, Dr. Gobler is a professor and principal investigator at the Gobler Lab at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, where he and his colleagues are investigating phytoplankton -- single-celled marine plants at the base of aquatic food webs -- and are particularly focused on harmful algal blooms (HABs). A variety of research methods (field, laboratory, experimental, molecular) are being used in a variety of ecosystems like estuaries, lakes and coastal environments to gain a better understanding of the HABs – which are caused by multiple classes of algae.

The lab’s research has expanded to the impact of climate change on the coastal ocean ecosystem. Much of this research is part of Dr. Gobler’s Stony Brook - Southampton Coastal and Estuarine Research Program (SCERP for short).

A native Long Islander, Dr. Gobler is working with environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy, Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Group for the East End and Citizens Campaign for the Environment to promote greater awareness of the causes of harmful algal blooms and the threat they pose to human health and local ecology.

Recently, I interviewed Dr. Gobler in his office at the Southampton campus of Stony Brook University where he teaches. We discussed threats to Long Island’s drinking water supply, harmful algal blooms like brown tide and his path as a scientist and professor.

Read excerpts of our conversation below or listen to the 37-minute interview by clicking on the audio player (above right) or by downloading this podcast episode.

Why is it important for people everywhere to know the source of their drinking water supply?

I think the main reason is so that they know that what they do on land will affect their drinking water and then ultimately their coastal waters as well. Some people don’t know where their drinking water is coming from and they may not recognize that, for example, how their fertilizing the lawn affects the nitrogen in the groundwater, or the functioning of their cesspool affects the nitrogen in the groundwater, or that anything that they put down their toilet eventually is going to end up potentially in someone’s drinking water or in our coastal waters. All of Long Island is a watershed, so anytime water hits anywhere on the land of Long Island from Montauk to Brooklyn, eventually that water is going to make its way to our coastal waters. It may just run off the surface and go in but more commonly it seeps into the ground and then seeps out. So anything that’s happening on the land effects what happens in the sea and anything that happens on the land is going to get into the groundwater (which) is primarily used for drinking.

What did you want to be when you were growing up and how did you get started in your field of work?

You know, I wasn’t really sure even like going into college. I did always have a fascination with science and specifically with biology. I majored in biology. And I think for me, the thing that pushed me to where I am today (are) actually the exact issues we are talking about. I remember being in high school and hearing about the first brown tides and how that was affecting coastal ecosystems and fishermen. I had worked for an environmental organization and had a bayman come in and speak to us. And in fact that was probably a life-changing event because the individual came in…I think he was the head of the Brookhaven Baymen’s Association. It’s one thing to read it in Newsday, but here’s a bayman essentially pouring out his life story just saying how he’s been devastated because he used to harvest clams for a living…that’s how he paid the bills…that’s how he fed his family.  And there were no more clams because of this brown tide…we don’t know what’s causing it. And that was really my inspiration. And so once I saw that I said wow here’s an opportunity to do research on something that could actually have a benefit, not just for the ecosystem, but for the masses… for citizens. And that inspired me to…after I got my degree in biology, to then go to Stony Brook University and get a degree, both a Masters and Ph.D., in studying brown tide for graduate school.

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