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View fullsize photo of Larry Robinson (right) and a fellow NOAA official inspecting a   beach on the Gulf Coast.
Spring 2010 Features

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Engulfed

University of Memphis alumnus Larry Robinson used his scientific skills two decades ago to unravel the ultimate in cold cases — a murder conspiracy theory involving a former U.S. president. Now, another commander-in-chief is employing his expertise for what is proving to be an even larger moment in U.S. history.

By Greg Russell

On a lonely stretch of white sand beach last July, University of Memphis student Lyndie Flippo found black gold. It was something she could have done without.

“It was depressing,” says Flippo, who also works as an administrative secretary at the University. “I really didn’t see anything in the water, but when it washed up on the white beaches, it looked dirty. When you walked on the beach near the water, the soles of your feet would turn black.”

Black as in “black gold,” a lavish term that at one time seemed just perfect for oil, but one that now seems cruelly ironic. Since the Deepwater Horizon oil well blew up in the Gulf of Mexico in April, thousands of businesses ranging from souvenir shops to fisheries have shuttered shop as millions of barrels of oil have leaked into the ocean, leaving entire communities in dire economic straits and a fragile marine ecosystem gasping for life. As of early August, several thousand sea turtles, birds, fish and mammals have succumbed to the effects of the oil.

The Gulf Coast is a second home to many U of M alumni and a favored spot of University students heading off to spring break. But Flippo, like many other Mid-Southerners on vacation this summer, found more tar balls than sunbathers when she visited Orange Beach in Alabama.

“The beach was seriously deserted,” Flippo says. “There were just two people at the beach one day. We did see clusters of people with shovels who were bagging the tar balls. The longer we were there, the worse the residue became. It made me mad.”

Left to right: U of M alumnus Larry Robinson at   the podium during his swearing-in ceremony for his position with the   National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Robinson   (center) after arriving by plane to the Gulf Coast shortly after the oil   spill; NOAA field workers examining a turtle that had succumbed to the   oil;
Left to right: U of M alumnus Larry Robinson at the podium during his swearing-in ceremony for his position with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Robinson after arriving by plane to the Gulf Coast shortly after the oil spill; NOAA field workers examining a turtle that had succumbed to the oil;

Flippo noted that just a couple of hours away in Destin, vacationers were still finding white beaches and waters that had not been red-flagged because of contamination. The oil spill’s path did not tarnish the entire Emerald Coast. Many beaches remain pristine with no sign of oil. Recent reports indicate, though, that some oil may have sunk to the ocean floor. (Check www.visitflorida.com/florida_travel_advisory for the latest beach and water conditions.)

The well has since been capped, but the effects of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history will linger for years to come, scientists say. When complete recovery will occur is a mystery to environmentalists.

But at the forefront of the effort is a man with U of M ties who has a history of unraveling mysteries of national significance. Meet Dr. Larry Robinson (BS ’79), whose job as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is to save as much of the Gulf Coast ecosystem as possible. Given the widespread contamination, it won’t be an easy task. But according to Robinson, it is “mission possible.”

No ordinary day at the beach

Larry Robinson is sounding more like a strategist than a chemist — a strategist with little time to spare.

“One of the things we have quickly done is to get a baseline assessment of the status of the ecosystem prior to oil impact,” Robinson says of his and NOAA’s role in the disaster. “We had a fairly tremendous effort to map out wetlands and the ecosystem in the early stages of the spill. We are now in a much better position to assess the impact that the oil is having and will have on the ecosystem.”

Robinson, a former chemistry major at the U of M, travels frequently between Washington, D.C., to the coast to monitor NOAA’s efforts.

“Specifically, we are serving as a conduit for scientific information, providing trajectories for the oil, which way it will go, and doing over-flight observations of the oil. We also identify those areas most likely to be impacted or highly valued or sensitive areas that might be impacted by the oil.”

Most importantly, Robinson is conducting a joint resource damage assessment with other government agencies “with the goal of restoring ocean or coastal resources that have been harmed by the spill.”

“The take home point is that NOAA is the science trustee with regard to the spill,” he says.

Robinson was nominated by the Obama administration for the NOAA position in January and was confirmed by the full U.S. Senate just after the spill. Ironically, he was already studying the Gulf Coast as part of his job as director of the Environmental Cooperative Science Center (ECSC) headquartered at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla., just a few miles from the coast. If Obama’s choice seemed like a good one in January before the spill, it looks even better now, given Robinson’s 13 years of research into marine ecosystems in the Gulf. His proximity to the area also has provided a heightened awareness of the serious nature of the incident.

“It is in my backyard, but more importantly, it is in America’s backyard and it is in your backyard,” Robinson says. “You might not think about it much, but the fish you enjoy in Memphis could have come from that region. It is an American issue with tremendous local impact on individuals on the coast.”

Robinson’s confirmation was widely hailed in the nation’s capital.

Said U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, “Protecting valuable coastal ecosystems and marine life while promoting resilient coastal communities is critical to the economic well-being and health of the nation. Dr. Robinson has broad, interdisciplinary scientific expertise in marine and coastal ecosystems and understands how they contribute to economic and societal health.”

Added Under Secretary for Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Jane Lubchenco, “With a background in coastal resource management and the environmental sciences, as well as his personal familiarity with the region’s ecosystems and communities, he will significantly further the federal government’s response to the spill’s effects.”

Left to right: Robinson tracking the oil�s path with Coast Guard officials;   NOAA scientist examining a sea turtle; and another NOAA official   watching the oil�s path. Photos courtesy of NOAA.
Left to right: Robinson tracking the oil’s path with Coast Guard officials; NOAA scientist examining a sea turtle; and another NOAA official watching the oil’s path. Photos courtesy of NOAA.

Robinson is certainly no stranger to being in the spotlight. In 1991 while a nuclear scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he was asked to help solve a mystery more than a century old that involved U.S. President Zachary Taylor.

“My role was to assist the chief medical examiner in determining whether or not there were indications of arsenic in the hair and nail remains of former President Zachary Taylor because there had been some suspicion that he had been assassinated due to the untimely nature of his death,” Robinson recalls.

Taylor’s body was exhumed at the request of ancestors eager to know if the President was murdered or had died from what was listed as the original cause of death in 1850: gastroenteritis.

“We were able to determine that the level of arsenic in Zachary Taylor’s hair and nails was actually at or below expected background levels for that time. What we were able to do is to show in the former president’s hair that there was no evidence that he was poisoned with arsenic. If that had been the case, it would have been the first assassination of a U.S. president.

“It is not everyday that you have the media beating down your door. When the media starts calling and showing up at your door with cameras as they did, that is a different world for the typical scientist. It was a fairly interesting 15 minutes of fame.”

The Kentucky Chief Medical Examiner’s office was broken into by reporters who were hoping to get a scoop before the results were released to the media. The remains of Taylor, the last Whig to serve as president, were buried again with full honors.

Elementary science

Robinson says he first became interested in science while in grade school in Memphis.

“I had this interest in nuclear science from a long time back. I had seen one of those atomic energy films while I was at Lincoln Elementary. That sort of stuck in the back of my mind. As I learned a little bit more about science, I got attracted to chemistry because I wanted to know how things were made and put together, how are atoms themselves put together.”

Robinson, who will receive the College of Arts & Sciences Outstanding Alumni Award Oct. 14 in the new University Center, says his path to nuclear chemistry was helped along by the late U of M professor Dr. J. C. Williams, who guided him to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis where he received a doctorate in nuclear chemistry.

“A faculty member — that is one of the things we often forget — an individual faculty member made a big difference to send me on my career path due to a personal intervention,” says Robinson, who graduated summa cum laude in 1979. “That is one of the things about Memphis State that I remember, that when you looked at it in individual parts, it was really a series of smaller institutions where you could get that one-on-one intervention that I was able to get. That was so meaningful to me in my career development.”

The J.C. Williams Memorial Scholarship was established in 1997 to honor the former chemistry professor.

From Lincoln Elementary, to South Side High School, to LeMoyne-Owen and then the U of M — landing on the Gulf Coast might seem like a long and improbable journey, but not so, according to Robinson.

“You might say I grew up in a coastal ecosystem in Memphis: the Mississippi River coast. I went to graduate school a little bit further north on that coast. When I went to Oak Ridge National Laboratory to work, one of the major ecosystems that I studied there happened to be an aquatic ecosystem, a lake system that was heavily contaminated with mercury and other contaminants from the earlier years in Oak Ridge associated with the war effort and the bomb production activity.

“With all that considered, you might say I have been an environmental scientist, specifically looking at environmental chemistry-related issues for a number of years.”

Which means good news for those looking for answers in light of an environmental disaster of epic proportions on the Gulf Coast.

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