Students at The University of Southern Mississippi are seizing opportunities to participate in community-level research across the Mississippi Gulf Coast, thanks to a collaborative partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Gulf of Mexico Program (EPA GMP).
In August 2016, USM and EPA GMP increased their prospects for future collaborations by extending their partnership from the University’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs to the Gulf Park campus in Long Beach.
“The partnership with the EPA’s Gulf of Mexico Program is providing University of Southern Mississippi students with critical hands-on opportunities that enhance our students’ educational experiences and support their efforts in progressing towards graduation,” said Dr. Steve Miller, vice president for the Gulf Park campus.
To include cooperation with the Gulf Park campus, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was amended to establish terms and conditions for sharing, basing and maintaining EPA laboratory equipment in the University’s Science Building, which is known as the Gulf Community Environmental Laboratory (Lab). This shared research space offers both institutions opportunities to partner and conduct research and studies on issues of concern affecting coastal communities.
“The lab’s location in the very modern Science Building makes it such a nice environment for scientists and students to work together,” said Dr. Troy Pierce, chief scientist for the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program. “When we first met with Dr. Steve Miller about the possibility of having the Lab, one of the key things he emphasized was helping students get hands-on experience using the latest field and laboratory equipment.”
Since the establishment of the Lab, USM students have worked alongside EPA scientists on two different projects in the Turkey Creek and Jourdan River watersheds, gaining experience in water quality, nutrients, periphyton and E. coli monitoring. With the collected data, students learn how to relay information to local decision makers to provide solutions on problems of concern.
During these projects, students also interact with professionals and community members from entities such as the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, the Turkey Creek Steering Committee, and the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain. According to Pierce, these interactions help students understand the significance partnerships have on the success of water quality and conservation efforts.
“We have actively pursued opportunities where we mentor students and put the latest technology in their hands,” said Pierce. “We are trying to emphasize with students how data and science can help community decision makers make informed choices and that scientists need to help make this data available to decisions makers in a form they can use.”
When senior environmental biology major Rebecca Crosby heard about the opportunity to volunteer with the EPA, she jumped at the opportunity to gain experience in her chosen career field.
“The EPA is a reputable agency with great goals. I knew working with them would be extremely beneficial to me professionally,” said Crosby. “The best way to ensure that you can land a job in your field after graduation is by racking up experience beforehand.”
From field assignments to water sampling and operating laboratory equipment, Crosby said her time with the EPA will soon help her obtain a career in a field that allows her “to be up-to-date on the latest environmental technologies.”
“My main interest is educating communities on environmental awareness and keeping the fields of environmental science and biology competitive so communities and ecosystems can continuously improve,” she said.
Dr. Jennifer Walker, associate dean for the College of Science and Technology, looks forward to seeing how the Southern Miss and EPA partnership will expand in the future because it has already proved advantageous to the students involved.
“The collaboration between USM and EPA GMP is a unique opportunity that continues to provide much needed opportunities for our students to experience what a job in a federal agency entails, while also gaining valuable experience in the field,” said Walker. “This experience has enhanced their competitiveness for jobs upon graduation and may also allow them to consider careers they would not have otherwise known about.”
This year, Southern Miss and EPA GMP also plan to offer more outreach opportunities for secondary students in the Gulf Coast area to help influence the number of future students who intend to pursue degrees in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
For more information about the Southern Miss and EPA GMP partnership, contact the College of Science and Technology at Southern Miss Gulf Park at 228.865.4507.