Interview with Dr. Helen White

by Ken Kostel

Helen White
Helen White decorates a Styrofoam cup in preparation for her dive in Alvin. Water pressure in the deep ocean will crush the cup to one-third its current size. (Photo by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

What are you going to be studying in the Gulf of Mexico?
When I go to the Gulf of Mexico in December I’m going to be looking at the corals, the bacteria that live on the corals, and the organic compounds that are present in the corals and in the bacteria.

Why is this important?
This is important because we’re interested in understanding how the oil might be incorporated into food for the bacteria and potentially also passed on to the corals.

So if oil from natural sources is already there, why is the Deepwater Horizon spill such a big deal?
The Deepwater Horizon spill is a big deal because the quantity of oil and the rate at which the oil has come out is very, very different than what happens on a daily basis. Typically it seeps out through cracks and comes out pretty slowly and in relatively small amounts. This [spill] is very different and has the potential to have very different impacts on the corals and the bacteria that live on them.

What’s so important about bacteria and microbes in these ecosystems?
I think what is one of the most interesting things about bacteria is their ability to do anything, to really be able to do a lot of different chemical reactions. Any chemical reaction that a chemist can do, there’s a good chance a bacteria exists that can do it better.  And we find these bacteria living in very strange places that we couldn’t survive and a lot of animals couldn’t survive. They can do this because they have these very different ways in which they can process chemicals in the environment to make a living.

Can you give an example of the extraordinary things they can do?
We have to take in oxygen to break down organic matter to provide us with energy. Bacteria can break down organic matter by using many things other than oxygen. They can use solid iron, for example, and so we have bacteria that actually can live deep in the ocean’s crust

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Helen White discusses the long term repercussions of oil spills. (Audio slideshow by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

You worked on another oil spill as a student. Tell us about that.
The Falmouth [Massachusetts] oil spill happened in 1969. There was a large amount of oil spilled in Buzzards Bay and it wound up in a protected salt marsh. When I started my PhD in 2000 there was a summer student working on oil spills who went out and found that this oil was still there even though it looks completely pristine and like any other salt marsh on Cape Cod. I mean, there are flowers growing, there’s grass growing. It looks very nice, but when we dug down 10 centimeters (4 inches) into the salt marsh, you can actually see a residue of oil. As a chemist, it was very interesting to me that it could stay in the environment for so long, and part of my work was to understand why it persists and whether it would be available to bacteria as a food source. I found that, in theory, it should. I also looked at specific compounds in the oil that we know to be toxic to see if they were moving through the sediment. I found that some of the compounds could, but most of them were stuck there. So it seemed that the oil was persisting and that it was available to the bacteria, but that it couldn’t really get out. And that it was still there 30 years after the fact.

What does Falmouth tell you about the Gulf?
I think what Falmouth tells us is that when you spill oil into the marine environment it is able to respond, but there are limits to that response, and that when you have oil in the environment—especially in the case of a spill where you have such a large quantity released—that it’s not just going to disappear. Much of it might be eaten by microbes, but there’s going to be some amount that sticks around for a long time.

How did you become interested in what you study?
I became interested in this as an undergraduate. I was a chemistry major, but I also was an avid scuba diver and would spend most of my weekends diving off of the southeast coast of England. There’s really not much to see off of the coast of England. There are quite a few shipwrecks to explore, but it’s pretty murky waters. Still, I really loved it and at some point decided that I should combine my interest in chemistry with my love of scuba diving and of being out on the ocean.

[Back to top]