Ask the Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell, Professor of Oceanography

Dr. Lisa Campbell keeps shellfish eaters safe through early detection of harmful phytoplankton in the Gulf Coast.

dr lisa campbell

Dr. Lisa Campbell is Professor of Oceanography and holds the William R. Bryant Oceanography Chair for Teaching, Research and Mentoring Excellence in the College of Geosciences. Her research interests include phytoplankton ecology with an emphasis on bloom dynamics, harmful algal blooms and ocean observing systems.

Campbell came to Texas A&M in 1996. Growing up near the beach in California, she’s had a lifelong fascination with oceanography. She’s been studying plankton since her undergraduate days. Now she’s spent more than four decades of researching phytoplankton. She says they are still interesting after all this time. “The diversity is fascinating,” she said. “The more we look, the more we find—new species, new interactions. The perpetual novelty is exciting.”

Campbell regularly presents at oceanography conferences around the world. She recently returned from conferences in Brazil and China where she discussed her work with TOAST, the Texas Observatory for Algal Succession Time-Series. She has also taught an advanced phytoplankton course for a group of international students in Italy.

Our Conversation with Dr. Campbell

What are phytoplankton?

Phytoplankton are microscopic plants that drift in the ocean. Between 100,000 and 200,000 species of these tiny organisms create the foundation of the food chain. Phytoplankton produce half of the planet’s oxygen and play a vital role as carbon fixers—converting carbon dioxide to useable compounds for living organisms. But about 100 types of phytoplankton also produce compounds that are toxic to mammals and fish.

What is a harmful algal bloom?

A harmful algal bloom, or HAB, occurs when certain kinds of phytoplankton grow in abundance and produce toxic effects on marine life. HABs are natural occurrences that resolve over time as toxins filter through shellfish, such as oysters, clams and mussels. During an HAB event, it is not safe to eat shellfish.

How do you detect HABs?

Using what’s called an Imaging FlowCytobot, we continuously monitor phytoplankton populations. Our sentinel point is Port Aransas, because so much water from the Gulf of Mexico flows through there. As water passes through it, the cytobot records images of the phytoplankton, which are sent to shore for computer analysis every 20 minutes. The computer then uses a program similar to facial recognition software. It identifies and counts the different species of phytoplankton to detect HABs.

Once an HAB is detected, what can be done?

When toxin-producing phytoplankton begin to proliferate, we let the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) know so it can sample oysters in affected areas. If toxin levels reach a certain threshold, they close fisheries and beaches until levels drop. We also provide an early warning system to the state to help prevent illness as a result of shellfish consumption. Neurotoxic shellfish poisoning can result in severe gastrointestinal upset and sensory processing problems. People aren’t likely to die, but they can become very ill. We have provided early warning for seven HAB events, and no human illnesses have been reported.

Why is this important?

We can detect HABs a month before anyone falls ill. This saves money for the DSHS, as it only has to test shellfish when we alert them. It also helps the fishing industry, because consumers have more confidence in their products. Finally, it protects beachgoers because some toxin-producing plankton can affect air quality on the coast and cause respiratory distress.

The other great thing about the data we collect is that images are archived over years, meaning they can serve as points of reference in new research questions. We’ve never had this kind of ocean archive before. It will be useful as we study the effects of climate change.

What’s next?

We hope to deploy another Imaging FlowCytobot near Freeport and improve monitoring on the Texas coast. Based on our success, researchers and managers in other areas of the U.S. want to use this technology. I am working with researchers in the state of California to set up a system in the San Francisco Bay area. Other nations, such as Finland and Japan, also employ this technology.

What is a Red Tide?

A red tide is another term for an HAB, but it’s a misnomer. HABs come in many colors, depending on the species of phytoplankton involved. Besides, phytoplankton can make shellfish toxic long before the water is red. You don’t have to see discolored water to have a big problem.

What are some other research interests?

While the fishing industry may rage against the loss of income caused by the closure of a fishery due to an HAB, it’s a good move in the long run. Texas is the third largest oyster producer in the U.S. If Texas oysters develop a reputation for being toxic, no one will buy them. My future research may include partnering with an economist to determine the economic impact of HABs.

Giving Opportunities

Graduate students can benefit from working with faculty like Dr. Lisa Campbell. Transform the professional development of our graduate students by endowing support for unique graduate student training. Graduate fellowships are endowed at $350,000 and our goal is to achieve 20 new fellowships.

To support the College of Geosciences and learn about endowment opportunities, contact Andrew Acker.

andrew acker

Andrew Acker

Assistant Vice President for Development
Texas A&M Foundation
(800) 392-3310 or (979) 458-4493
aacker@txamfoundation.com