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New internal projects incubator awards first funding

25 January 2024

PML is pleased to share the news of three projects, on the topics of oil spills, health impacts of sea spray and ocean connectedness, have been awarded funding as part of our Advanced Research Fund.
Micheile Henderson | Unsplash

The PML Advanced Research Fund exists to provide a new and fully internal funding source to PML science staff for high-reward, cutting edge science that would also help them develop their careers.

Proposals were invited that were ground-breaking in nature, reflect research that is strategically important to PML and have the potential to create meaningful societal impact. This could be, for example, novel science of international quality that is at the forefront of its field, not being undertaken elsewhere and would be challenging to fund via conventional routes. 

Prof. Icarus Allen, Chief Executive of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and lead of the ARF process, comments:

“The Advanced Research Fund allows PML scientists a funding mechanism for high-reward, cutting-edge, novel science that would be challenging to fund elsewhere. It is an incubator for ideas, allowing our researchers the freedom to explore new concepts, paradigms and technologies enhancing its position as a world leader in the field of marine science. Our ambition is to drive PML science, better placing us to address environmental challenges to support a healthy and sustainable ocean”.

The funded projects were:

Bioactives in sea spray aerosols: origin, seasonality and mechanisms of health effects (BIOSPRAY)

Lead Investigator: Dr Ruth Airs

This project will investigate the response of lung cells to mixtures of bioactive compounds extracted from natural marine aerosols. We will be looking at mechanisms of health benefits of coastal exposure to sea air, working at the interfaces of environmental and medical research.

This project aims to:
  • Provide evidence for mechanism(s) for health benefits from exposure to sea spray aerosols.
  • Produce 3 datasets on microbial composition of sea spray aerosols, composition of bioactives in aerosols and response of lung cell lines to aerosol extracts.
  • Open up new research avenues between environmental and medical science (e.g. influence of marine aerosols on the lung microbiome), relevant to future cross-council funding calls.
  • Further our understanding of seasonal biogenic inputs to sea spray aerosols.
  • Contribute to the place-based impact agenda, for example, leading to impact for local social prescribing.
  • Potentially lead on to related research areas, such as mechanism effects via interactions with gut microbiome, exposure to marine aerosols by frequent sea users including the interplay between bioactives and antimicrobial resistance in nearshore waters.
Dr Ruth Airs, Marine Biogeochemist and Head of Postgraduate Studies, commented on the funding award:

“The Advanced Research Fund allows us to explore a new area of science for PML, and cross boundaries in terms of science disciplines. We have created an exciting new collaboration with Prof Chris Scotton, Prof of Respiratory Biomedicine at the University of Exeter and are thrilled to have PML Fellow Prof Mike Moore on the team as well as diverse expertise within PML’s Marine Biogeochemistry and Observations (MBO) and Marine Ecology and Biodiversity (MEB) science areas.”

Social-Environment Attitudes and Connections to the Ocean (SEACO)

Lead Investigator: Dr Elizabeth Gabe-Thomas

The SEACO project focuses on how people connect and interact with the sea and marine environment. The main aim of this exciting project is the psychological construct of ocean connectedness, which describes a person’s emotional and cognitive bond with the marine & coastal environment. Emerging evidence suggests that ocean connectedness motivates people to engage in behaviours which protect the ocean & coastal environments that also influences the amount of psychological well-being that someone will receive from engaging with the coast.

Marine cultural ecosystem services are the non-material benefits that people receive from the marine environment, such as the opportunities for recreation at the beach or enjoying a nice sea view that contributes to wellbeing. The role of people’s connection to the marine environment is not adequately captured in existing ecosystem service frameworks, therefore, this project aims to measure these services to improve our understanding of the multiple values that ecosystems bring to human society and better integrate ocean connectedness within ecosystem service approaches. This work will be at the cutting edge of environmental psychological research.

SEACO will also create a foundation for an annual survey of Plymouth residents' relationship & engagement with the local estuarine and marine environment - Plymouth Sound - over time. This survey will contribute to the Marine Natural Capital and Social Lab, linking data on Plymouth Sound from both natural and social sciences.

The time series data created by the survey will allow researchers to address internationally-relevant scientific research questions on the relationship between marine cultural ecosystem services and long-term health & well-being outcomes.

The project aims to:
  • Develop a scientifically robust, easy-to-implement novel tool to measure how connected a person is to the ocean & marine environment.
  • Establish a unique cultural ecosystem services framework, validated with data.
  • Create a recruitment approach for a regular annual survey of Plymouth residents to include a strategy for ensuring that seldom-heard voices will be included. 
  • Feed into the development of Plymouth’s National Marine Park to improve ocean connectedness of local residents for the benefits of the environment and residents alike. 
  • Create a legacy for future ocean connectedness research with a robust longitudinal survey, ensuring high-quality time series data and the opportunity and the ability to analyse changes over time.
Dr Lizzi Gabe-Thomas, Environmental Psychologist at PML, said:

"This funding will allow us to develop a robust measure of ocean connectedness and provide a solid basis for further funding to create a long-term data set that will allow us to see changes to how the people of Plymouth interact with the sea over time."

"I have always had a deep connection to the sea. Even though my scientific knowledge of the ocean (ocean literacy) was low, I always noticed how the sea made me feel and how it can help people regulate their emotions. By studying ocean connectedness, we hope to understand better the potential for the coastal & marine environment to support our mental well-being and adapt to the changing climate."

“As an academic who grew up in a socially deprived area of a seaside city, it’s imperative to me that we capture the experiences of people who are not usually represented in traditional surveys”.

Dr Stefanie Broszeit, Senior Marine Ecosystem Services Scientist at PML, continued:

“This study will provide me the time to carry out research that I have been wanting to develop around cultural ecosystem services. In recent years I have seen that cultural ecosystem services are lacking a human, and in particular individual focus because it does not reflect well the human experience. I am hopeful that putting ocean connectedness at the centre of cultural ecosystem services research will close this gap”.

Understanding oil spill dispersal dynamics in complex coastal systems from high resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar (OSCSAR)

Lead Investigator: Dr. Elizabeth C Atwood
Oil spills can have devastating impacts on our aquatic ecosystems, wildlife and economies. These catastrophic events occur when extracted crude oil or refined petroleum products are released into the environment, typically in water bodies like oceans and rivers. The consequences of oil spills are multifaceted, making them a grave problem that demands immediate attention and comprehensive solutions. Where anthropogenic oil spills occur and how they disperse is of critical importance with respect to public health and ecological sustainability.

Taking advantage of recent advances in Earth Observation Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) systems, offering very high resolution imagery (i.e. on a scale of less than 5m) from multi-platform constellations capable of providing multiple acquisitions in a single day, it is now possible to design a system able to monitor directly how oil slicks are dispersing in the nearshore environment over a timescale of hours, regardless of cloud conditions.

Where oil spill slicks disperse along sensitive or populated coastlines is a primary concern when considering clean-up and containment strategies responding to a disaster. The new multi-platform SAR systems provide a high risk/high reward opportunity to overcome the challenge of determining oil spill dynamics in hydrodynamically complex coastal areas.

Despite these technical advances, demonstration of SAR-based oil slick detection with very high resolution data providing multiple separate acquisitions per day has not yet been demonstrated. As part of OSCSAR, a small team at PML is now working to address this together with Capella Space.

The project will:
  • Combine experience at PML for the development of a satellite-based oil slick detection algorithm together with a close relationship to a commercial satellite data provider, aiming to detect oil slicks with an unprecedented coverage and frequency.
  • Expand nearshore oil spill detection capabilities to improve responses to ship accident or other massive spill events.
  • Provide large-area detection data of surface dispersal pathways, particularly in regions where operational site-specific hydrodynamic models do not already exist.
  • Provide the only semi-automated, multi-acquisition oil spill dynamic monitoring, regardless of cloud-cover
Dr. Elizabeth C Atwood, Earth Observation Data Analyst at PML, said:

“The PML Advanced Research Fund has allowed our team of Earth Observation researchers to address the high risk/high impact topic of oil spill detection with novel very high resolution SAR imagery in coastal regions. The novel algorithm developed in OSCSAR will allow a better understanding of nearshore oil spill dynamics and place PML in a unique position to respond to future incidents”.

Mack Koepke, Vice President of Global Sales at Capella Space, continued:

“We are pleased to work with PML to find new ways to mitigate the impacts of one of the most challenge environmental hazards today. We are thrilled to enable this expert team of research scientists and remote sensing specialists to build innovative analysis tools using Capella’s high-resolution SAR imagery”.
Figure 1: (left) Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) image of slick from region in the Gulf of Mexico detected on 8th October 2023, (right) same image with the detected feature mask overlaid. The light coloured, well defined structures in both images are installed platform infrastructure.
The 2nd round of Advanced Research Fund is now open for applications so watch this space for more news on the next phase of exciting and innovative research projects.
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