Science, innovation create jobs, help shape future of St. Pete

Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital/ Allyn DiVito

83 Degrees Media

By: Janan Talafer

It isn't easy for Tampa Bay Area experts to explain to non-experts what they do every day and why.

But several recently had a chance -- in six minutes or less -- to tell the stories of their work involving such diverse topics as red tide, medical simulation, early childhood development, and the sounds that fish make underwater.

In what was billed as the first in a series of annual reports, the “State of Science” in October showcased the latest cutting-edge research that is taking place just behind-the-scenes in St. Petersburg’s Innovation District.

As Emcee and former WFLA News Anchor Gayle Sierens-Martin pointed out, many of the scientists, physicians and researchers working in the Tampa Bay region have international reputations but are largely unknown locally.

So for those who weren't at the event or aren't really sure what is going on in places like the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, U.S. Geological Survey Coastal and Marine Science Center, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, here are eight key takeaways.

1. Mapping the sea floor

Did you know that the West Florida Continental Shelf, a vast area in the Gulf of Mexico, has a larger than the landmass of Pinellas County, but is only five percent mapped? Or that World War II Sherman tanks are creating an artificial reef for marine life just off the coast of Pass-a-Grille?

Dr. Cheryl Hapke, a research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey Coastal and Marine Science Center, and Dr. Steve Murawski, a professor at the USF College of Marine Science, are both diving in to look “beneath the waves” and create high-resolution maps of Florida coastal waters.

Don’t we already have plenty of nautical charts? Not exactly, says Hapke. She says many of the maps in use today are actually created from older data, sometimes as far back as the 1800s. There is also not enough detail. That’s important, says Hapke, because a more accurate map would help us be better prepared for predicting hurricane storm surges, knowing where red tide blooms might spread and even finding the best places to fish for grouper.

Murawski’s interest leans more toward the impact of human activities on the health of ocean ecosystems. Since 2015, “oil spill penalty money” has been funding much of his research.

His high priority targets for mapping include the Gulfstream pipeline that carries natural gas from Mobile, AL, to Tampa to Mobile, AL., and the Florida Middle Grounds, a series of underwater ridges known for some of the best fishing in the Gulf.

2. Facial recognition for fish

Most people wouldn’t associate facial recognition with fish. But marine scientists are using this innovative technology to assist with everything from monitoring the health of farmed fish to tracking and counting fish.

Murawski is collaborating with SRI St. Petersburg on a technology called fishal recognition. “It’s the next big idea,” he says. “Instead of manually counting the fish, we can use recognition technology.”

Why would you want to count fish? According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, fish-count surveys are “vital for the conservation and management of fishing stocks in increasing over-fished seas.” The Alaska Fisheries Science Center uses fishal recognition technology to monitor fish stocks in some 3 million square miles of ocean.

3. Red tide nightmare

Dr. Kate Hubbard jokes that she works “on these microscopic organisms that have a big impact.” Hubbard leads the red tide program at Florida Fish & Wildlife Research Institute.

“Karenia brevis (the red tide organism) is a complicated problem with constantly changing variables,” says Hubbard. “It’s a single-celled algae that can use a wide variety of nutrients to grow and generate blooms. The more we know about it, the better we can predict when it might happen and figure out the next steps to take.”

Red tide was a devastating environmental problem for Florida this year, but Hubbard points out that it’s not the only time that the state has had a crisis. “Every decade we’ve had severe blooms,” says Hubbard. “There has even been mention of it by early Florida pioneers and Native Americans.”

Hubbard is among local marine scientists partnering with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota to train more volunteers for a statewide citizen scientist program related to red tide. Volunteers drop a water sample onto a slide, then use an iPhone to take a video of the microscopic organisms. “We can identify whether it’s karenia brevis because it has a distinct swimming behavior,” says Hubbard.

4. Fish talk

Dr. David Mann is president and founder of Loggerhead Instruments. He’s also a former faculty member at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science and an expert in bioacoustics in marine animals. Bioacoustics refers to the noisy underwater symphony that fish, dolphins and other marine life create through squeaks and clicks. For example, damselfish purr, grouper growl, and snapping shrimp sound like bacon frying.

Listening in on underwater marine sounds allows scientists to track fish for habitat monitoring and to help better understand the impact of events like red tide, says Mann. In September, he noted that the water went silent, a result of peak red tide blooms.

5. 3D printing & simulations

Dr. Jennifer Arnold, a neonatologist and director of the Center for Medical Simulation at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, recalls performing her very first high-risk procedure on a real baby.

Now medical training is moving toward experiential learning based on realistic simulated experiences, similar to how pilots are trained in the aviation industry, she says. The advent of 3D bioprinting is the next step.

“We can create a 3D custom model of a simulated brain tumor or heart defect, which allows the surgical team to rehearse ahead of time and discover any problems that they would not have identified from just looking at a CT Scan or MRI,” says Arnold. “It will completely change how we perform surgery. It’s also the future of medicine as we’re able to use 3D bioprinting for implants, medical devices, prosthesis, and even tissue.”

6. Saving lives

Babies born with congenital diaphragmatic hernia frequently don’t survive, but at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Dr. David Kays and his team are changing the odds. “We have achieved greater than 95 percent survival rate, which has never been done anywhere else,” says Dr. Kays, who joined the hospital two years ago to head up the hospital’s new Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia Program.

Infants born with this life-threatening condition have critically small lungs. “It’s a challenging diagnosis and we’ve had to think outside the box to successfully treat them,” says Dr. Kays. Johns Hopkins All Children’s new 15-bed unit for infants with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia is the first in the world, he says.

7. Digital biomarkers

Dr. Mohamed Rehman, chair of anesthesia at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, is applying data analytics to the emerging field of personalized medicine. “Everyone has a digital signature -- a biomarker,” explains Dr. Rehman. “We can use patient data to improve treatment and safety, for example deciding the most effective drugs to prescribe for each person and making sure we use the right dosage or finding the right antibiotic to use for that specific individual.”

8. Changing children’s future

It’s not surprising that disruptive or traumatic childhood experiences can have a lasting impact on someone’s life. But it is a surprise to learn how early in a child’s life those experiences can create havoc.

“The wiring of the brain -- the neurological highway, is laid down very early. Eighty-five percent of brain development takes place by age 3,” says James McHale, director of the USF St. Petersburg Family Study Center.

McHale and his team are studying how to foster healthier social and emotional development of children through the concept of co-parenting, a method of shared child-rearing in diverse family structures common today, from post-divorce families, to same-sex couples, multi-generational families and parents who have never married. “Positive social connections from birth to age 3 are critical to healthy childhood development,” says McHale. “Our goal is that every child from birth to age 18 benefit from co-parenting. It’s good for brain development.”

For more information, visit the website for the St. Petersburg’s Innovation District.

83 Degrees Media

By: Janan Talafer