Assistant Professor of Oceanography Matt Oliver.
Photo by Lisa Tossey
For Matt Oliver, the College of Marine and Earth Studies’ newest faculty member, the most exciting part of marine science lives at the center of the food web. At the heart of his research is phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that grow abundantly in the ocean.
“Phytoplankton are important for a lot of different reasons,” said the assistant professor of oceanography. “They’re important for carbon dioxide transport to the deep sea. … They produce about half the oxygen on the planet.”
The tiny plants also can have a negative impact on the marine environment, he said. When phytoplankton occur in high concentrations, events known to scientists as blooms, they can hurt water quality and can become toxic, killing fish. Given their impact on marine life and because they require certain circumstances to grow in large numbers, phytoplankton are a good indicator of biological and chemical conditions in the world’s oceans.
And that’s where Oliver really hones in. He currently is working under a NASA grant in which he studies the global biogeography of the oceans, which means he looks at where organisms live, at what abundance, and under which environmental conditions. To do that, Oliver analyzes biological and physical signatures that appear in satellite data streams.
Working out of the Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes, Oliver also is interested in looking at the genes of phytoplankton as well as the theoretical evolution of the plants. Other projects he plans to tackle initially include working on remote sensing in the Delaware Bay and utilizing an autonomous underwater glider that he and collaborators at Rutgers University can control by satellite to collect data. The glider is a long cylindrical instrument that will let the scientists gather data on water quality parameters such as salinity and water temperature.
“It will help us develop and sustain a picture of the coastal ocean,” said Oliver, who comes to UD after working as a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers, where he received his doctoral degree in oceanography.
Oliver, originally from southern California, also has a master’s degree in biology and a bachelor’s degree in ecology and systematic biology, both from California Polytechnic State University.
The former college athlete said the best thing about his work is being part of a community, “meeting different people and creating relationships and friendships.”
Noting that oceanography is a collaborative science, Oliver added that the research facilities and scientists at the College of Marine and Earth Studies (CMES) attracted him to the University. “It seems like a really good working group here,” he said.
For more on the Delaware Sea Grant College Program, visit www.deseagrant.org. To learn more about CMES, visit www.ocean.udel.edu.