By Russ Lay | Outer Banks Voice on February 15, 2021
A: Conspicuously perched above the water just south of the Manteo/Wanchese intersection on Rte. 64, the UNC Coastal Studies Institute (CSI) is a multi-institutional research and educational partnership of the UNC System including North Carolina State University, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Wilmington and Elizabeth City State University.
Founded in 2003, CSI, as noted on its web page, “focuses on integrated coastal research and education programming centered around the needs, issues, and concerns of coastal North Carolinians…Engagement is core to the mission and CSI has a robust outreach program with staff that are actively engaged with coastal communities through meaningful education offerings for the public, life-long learners, and K-12 students and teachers.”
The Institute’s work ranges from studying the effects of beach nourishment on Pea Island to examining how local social and economic values mesh with the development of ocean-based renewable energy. The Institute’s work and insights are shared with the community through such events as the Blue Heron Bowl trivia tournament, summer day camps for local kids and the OBX Science Fair, which allows students to show off their experiments and compete for prizes.
A: I grew up in eastern North Carolina sailing and boating on the Neuse River Estuary, cruising to the “Hook” on Cape Lookout, and surfing the Emerald Coast. When I first arrived at college, I studied something that interested me and came easy, chemistry. However, it was when I took my first “Intro to Oceanography” course that everything changed. I saw my path — a way of merging my academic interest (chemistry) to what seemed to be a part of my soul (the ocean). I got a BS in Chemistry, then a MSc and PhD in Chemical Oceanography. My focus was (and continues to be) the interactions across the land/sea interface. This connection is where we (people) have the greatest influence on the ocean and where the ocean has the greatest impact on us! So, my research was certainly grounded in my interest in connecting with people, not just the science.
My first academic position was at Tulane University in New Orleans. I learned a lot from my mentor, Dr. Brent McKee, about major river systems, broadening my own concepts of the connections across land and sea. I brought that experience, knowledge, and passion back to North Carolina when I started as an Assistant Professor in ECU’s Department of Geology. I’ve studied this land/sea interface from North Carolina to Puerto Rico, New Zealand to the Antarctic, literally every continent across the globe. How soils move from the coastal plain to the continental shelf, passing through the critical estuarine systems along the way. How fertilizers from farming influence the chemistry of groundwater and eventually, our coastal waters. And the other drivers of change — storms, sea level rise, even boat wakes.
I hope the science I conduct makes a difference in how we understand our environment and helps lead us to better stewardship in the coastal zone.
A: I first started interacting with Mike Muglia (one of two people that made up CSI at the time) in 2004…bumping into him while I was looking at the waves one weekend on the OBX. We hit it off and started talking about possible projects and connections. By 2010, I started talking with Dr. Nancy White, CSI’s inaugural Executive Director, about trying to develop a more defined position at CSI for me. I had been in Greenville since 2000 and the pull of the coast was strong. In 2012 I finally moved to the OBX and was one of two scientists leading the Coastal Processes research group at CSI. It was an incredible time to come onboard with CSI…in 2013 we moved into the new digs on Croatan Sound in Wanchese.
About that same period, I had been working with faculty across ECU and CSI to develop a strategic plan that better linked the two institutions. In 2018, ECU put forward an innovative strategic plan that would bring all the partners together…it included creating a new college-level academic unit and a new department, all focused on coastal science. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to lead this new chapter in ECU’s Coastal Enterprise.
A: Wow, the sky is the limit and it’s exciting! In the last 18 months, we have hired five new faculty that are here on the OBX full-time. Those faculty have since hired many research technicians, postdoctoral scholars, and graduate students. So, just the expansion of faculty on the Outer Banks Campus is having a local impact to our economy. With the additional faculty we can now develop new undergraduate and graduate programs that bring students here for a semester or more, especially during the ‘off season’ between September and April. This academic year we have had between 13-17 fulltime undergraduate students and we want to grow this number to around 50 in the coming years. Housing is our biggest obstacle right now– without suitable housing, we just won’t meet that vision.
We are certainly making an impact through our research and engagement as well. For example, working through our NC Renewable Ocean Energy Program in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, we will bring the final stage of a five -stage competition that offers up to $3.3 million in cash prizes to innovators from across the nation to test their systems at Jeannette’s Pier in April 2022. The competition focuses on small, modular, wave-powered desalination systems that could provide drinking water to coastal communities.
A: I think it is important to recognize that ECU has “planted its flag” on the Outer Banks. It isn’t just about CSI, but the fact that we have established ECU’s Outer Banks Campus. We are hoping to grow opportunities beyond just coastal research. We are thinking strategically about other academic programs (hospitality & tourism, fisheries, coastal & environmental engineering, etc.) that can be “stood up” on the coast. These new programs would benefit from the knowledge and support of our local community and wouldn’t move forward without that conversation. We have established strong partnerships with many organizations across our community (Dare County Schools, College of the Albemarle, Town of Nags Head, The Nature Conservancy, The Coastal Federation, Jennette’s Pier, OBX Chamber, and many others), and we look forward to their input as we continue to grow.
A: The Outer Banks is an outdoorsman/waterman’s paradise. Lucky for me, I love being outside, particularly on the water. I grew up surfing the Emerald Coast of NC, occasionally making it to the OBX. So, surfing was certainly one of the many reasons I moved out here. Now, if I could free up some time from in front of the computer, maybe I would find myself in the lineup more often.
If there isn’t a wave, then I am trying to get my boat on the water and head out of Oregon Inlet (always interesting). My wife, Sandy, will tell you that there’s no moss growing under my feet…I have a real hard time sitting still! If I am not at CSI, I am working around the house, surfing, fishing, or preparing to do it (fixing boards, spooling reels, working on the boat).
As much as we love the OBX, it is nice to get a change of scenery now and then. For that, we always head to the NC mountains. I really love the Brevard area…a place I have been visiting for the last 25 years. That area has great mountain biking, rock climbing, and some breathtaking hikes with water falls everywhere! It’s another place that always has me moving between hobbies…again, never sitting still. I think it drives Sandy a bit crazy.
A: The OBX is full of gems…it always amazes me that you can drive a short distance and find yourself practically alone on these beautiful islands. A few of my favorite places are Nags Head Woods, Pea Island, Kitty Hawk Woods, and the beach right down the road from our home. Nags Head Woods is just an incredible trail system. Aaron McCall and the group at The Nature Conservancy do such a great job making this area so accessible and a joy to walk around! Same can be said about Kitty Hawk Woods and some of the surrounding area. You can get lost in those woods…certainly forget you are on a barrier island! When I first moved to the OBX, I was amazed how a short drive over Oregon Inlet during the summer would reduce the number of people on the beach by several orders of magnitude. I really love getting over to Pea Island…seems so remote, but just a hop and a skip!
A: It’s hard to live on the Outer Banks and not always eat out…there are so many incredible restaurants and chefs!! I enjoy Mako Mike’s, The Brewing Station, Blue Moon, O’Neal’s, and Kill Devil Grill. You won’t find a better burger than the western at Art’s Place. Got a sweet tooth, can’t pass up Surfin’ Spoon. You know spring is here when most of these and many other eateries start having live music…most of which are local artists. And the list goes on and on…what’s key to all this, the people. All these places are built on great people.
A: That’s the thing, the OBX has the best people…hands down. We got it all and I’m humbled to be a small part of it.
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