Science policy fellows tackle Gulf of Mexico

Shelby Servais and Ben Wilson both earned degrees at FIU. Both did research in the Florida Everglades. And they are both among the latest Science Policy Fellows of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

As fellows in the National Academies’ Gulf Research Program, Servais and Wilson will delve into research, evaluation, planning, outreach and policy to make scientific information useful for the well-being of the Gulf of Mexico.

Ben Wilson and Shelby Servais are among the latest crop of National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Science Policy Fellows.

Servais is going to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Fairhope, Ala. Originally from Annapolis, Md., she earned a Ph.D. in biology from FIU. She examined the impact of sea level rise on soil microbes in the Everglades. Plants and soil store carbon that would otherwise end up as harmful carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Soil is also home to microscopic bacteria and fungi. Despite their small size, the microbes play a big role in carbon storage. Servais found salty water can suppress their ability to process carbon. In her role with the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Office, she will help implement and assess ecosystem restoration.

“What I study in the Everglades is rather disconnected to how people benefit directly from it. That absence of a direct connection motivates me,” Servais said. “At a time when coastal environments are increasingly threatened, we need more scientists interacting with the public so people and the environment both can thrive.”

Wilson is going to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Lafayette, La. A Birmingham, Ala. native, he earned a Ph.D. in biology from FIU. He studied peat soil collapse in the Everglades. Peat soil is the most efficient carbon sink on the planet. As water gets saltier, plants get stressed and die. The carbon stored in the soil and plants is then in danger of being released into the atmosphere. Wilson found that with less carbon in the soil, it breaks apart and collapses putting the entire ecosystem in jeopardy of disappearing. In his new role with the Gulf Restoration Office, Wilson will help with the planning and implementation of gulf restoration projects.

“We’re losing a lot of natural resources to a lot of different things. As I see them disappearing, I feel like I’m losing a part of myself,” Wilson said. “I want to take research and use it to improve the health of coastal ecosystems. If I can do something to keep them around, then I’ll feel like I have accomplished something.”

The Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is a science-based program focused on advancing health, environment, and oil system safety in the Gulf of Mexico and other coastal regions. It funds grants, fellowships and other activities in research and development, education and training, and monitoring and synthesis. Science policy fellows of the program spend one year on the staff of federal, state, local, or non-governmental environmental, natural resource, oil and gas, and public health agencies in the Gulf of Mexico.