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Big Idea
Alumnus Tackles Gulf Coast Disaster

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Oil in the Gulf

"College students can make a difference, working in collaboration... I advise them to be humble, but have big ideas."

Scott Myers-Lipton

It is virtually impossible to grasp the devastating consequences caused by the BP oil spill on April 20, 2010. Government and independent scientists now estimate the well emits between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels of oil a day. Numbers like these are unfathomable, and the cleanup involved will take years, possibly decades.

Scott Myers-Lipton '81 (Political Science), however, has an idea.

A professor in the Department of Sociology at San Jose State University, Myers-Lipton serves as an advisor for many student-led initiatives focusing on community service and recovery programs. One such program is the Gulf Coast Civic Works (GCCW) project. It's a national student movement aimed at passing the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act — a federal bill to create 100,000 jobs for Gulf Coast residents and evacuees of Hurricane Katrina to rebuild public infrastructure.

"My students watched 'When the Levees Broke' directed by Spike Lee," said Myers-Lipton about a 2006 documentary depicting the aftereffects of the levees collapsing during Hurricane Katrina. "They started looking into public work projects and how the country was rebuilt during the '30s. And this was the birth of the GCCW: to rebuild the infrastructure of the Gulf Coast."

Four years later, the bill initially aimed at alleviating the effects of Hurricane Katrina has yet to pass. However, with the recent devastation caused by the oil spill in the Gulf Coast, Myers-Lipton sees this as another opportunity to push for reform and is running full speed ahead — and has no plans of stopping until something is done.

Gulf Coast

"And that's when I saw so much poverty... How do we have a world with so much violence, war and genocide?"

Scott Meyers-Lipton

"It has been a four-year struggle to get the GCCW Act passed," Myers-Lipton said. "It was first developed as a campus movement. And now we've got over two hundred organizations involved, including Catholic and faith organizations, who have been a huge help in passing this. They realize a moral response is necessary."

It is an idea that certainly has some strong merit. There are thousands of residents — from fishermen to store owners to community members — that have been affected by the oil spill. Under the GCCW, those residents would be tasked, and thus employed, to help clean and rebuild the Gulf Coast. They would be able to rebuild their homes.

And you would never know that this unshakable hope for change stems from a man who once played tennis at the University of San Diego and went on to become an All-American tennis star. With a degree in political science, Myers-Lipton traveled the world playing tennis. "And that's when I saw so much poverty," he said. "How do we have a world with so much violence, war and genocide?"

With those heavy issues on his mind, Myers-Lipton went on to receive a teaching credential from Mills College, a master's degree in humanities from San Francisco State University, and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

After landing a teaching position at San Jose State, his interest quickly grew towards encouraging students to create their own community projects and programs that tackle issues such as homelessness, poverty and workers' rights.

"College students can make a difference, working in collaboration," Myers-Lipton relates. "I advise them to be humble, but have big ideas."

And the GCCW project is certainly a big idea. Although Obama has yet to pass such a federal government-controlled relief effort as the GCCW project, advocates continue to push for change. Support for the project continues to grow. Kerry Kennedy, board member for Amnesty International and daughter of Robert Kennedy, recently spoke about the importance of a civic works program on MSNBC on June 18. It's proof that Myers-Lipton and his students' big idea just might be working.

- Kelly Machleit

For more information on the GCCW project, go to

Q&A with Assistant Professor Nathalie Reyns, PhD, Marine Science and Environmental Studies Department

Nathalie Reyns

Nathalie Reyns
Assistant Professor, Marine Science and Environmental Studies
(619) 260-4096

What is the real impact of the oil spill on the marine animal populations of the Gulf?

It is difficult to evaluate the long term affects of the Gulf oil spill on marine mammal populations. NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service maintains a website with oil spill updates. Currently, one dead sperm whale and ~50-60 stranded dolphins have been found in the oil spill region. Tests, however, are ongoing to determine the causes of death. There is also great concern about the impact of the oil spill on endangered or threatened sea turtles, many of which nest along Gulf coast beaches. Oil-contaminated waters will impact sea turtle hatchlings emerging from their nests as well as breeding adults that are foraging offshore. Seabirds in the region have been heavily impacted. Finally, the Gulf has many commercially important resident species such as oysters, shrimp and fishes, and is used by migratory species such as tunas, swordfish and sharks. Studies are ongoing to determine how such species are being affected by the oil spill. It is important to recognize that impacts can go beyond the obvious problems associated with oiling (such as smothering or hypothermia) but also includes effects that may resonate though the entire food web (for example, through reductions in phytoplankton productivity because of increased turbidity from oil, exposure of organisms to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that may reduce health or overall survival, accumulation of arsenic in seawater that can enter the food web, etc.).

How can we, as humans, be better stewards of our oceans?

We all need to be better stewards of the ocean, and it is necessary to recognize that what we do on land can directly AND indirectly affect ocean health. Even if you do not live in a coastal state or country, you can adversely impact ocean health by eating certain seafood, or because pollutants generated inland may be dispersed globally by winds and ocean currents. I push my students to evaluate their environmental impacts, and make sound lifestyle choices to limit their use of plastics (these are derived from petroleum which support our continued dependence on oil, and also pollutes the oceans due to the persistence of plastics in the marine environment), recycle, eat sustainably harvested seafood, try biking or carpooling to reduce CO2 emissions and their overall use of petroleum products, use less water and electricity, and educate their familyand friends about the environmental issues our oceans face. I think that we can make important changes with education and action.

How will the oil spill affect your research or that of your colleagues?

I have colleagues that have had to undergo hazardous materials safety training so that they can conduct necropsies and properly dispose of dead oiled marine organisms. Others are taking part in research or developing models to study how oil at depth is being dispersed by oceanographic conditions, while some are working to develop new technologies to study the oil spill impacts.

Has the Gulf oil spill inspired your students to choose new research projects, internships, volunteer opportunities or potential career choices?

Immediately following the spill I had a number of students inquire about potential volunteer opportunities to help clean up the spill. But at the time, the oil had not yet reached the shorelines. A couple of Marine Science graduates have recently moved to Louisiana and hope to conduct research on the oil's environmental impacts.