For as long as she can recall, Governors State University (GSU) Assistant Professor Dr. Erin Grey-Avis has been drawn to water. As a child, she lived near beaches in her native Delaware and saw bodies of water as living troves that contained and reflected dynamic worlds. As an adult, Grey-Avis entered the field of marine biology. Her work reminds her of a popular crime television show franchise, she said.
“In CSI, the investigators use a variety of tools to figure out a mystery. In my case, we are trying to solve environmental cases, ‘’ said Grey-Avis, who joined GSU in 2014 after studying and leading research at other universities including University of Chicago, Tulane University, and University of Notre Dame.
Grey-Avis’ curiosity has carried her to marine habitats across the globe, from Japan to the Gulf of Mexico where her highly sought collection of blue crab larvae placed her in the center of a media hunt following the historic 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Her findings helped government policy-makers better assess the impact of the explosion that dumped millions of barrels of oil into the gulf. Her research also helps the multi-billion dollar fishing industry craft regulations. Currently, Grey-Avis is developing statistical tools to predict costly biological invasions to the Great Lakes.
Beyond leading research that makes an economic and environmental impact, Grey-Avis says she wants to inspire her graduate and undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences to embrace science as a way to solve environmental mysteries while discovering careers.
GSU Newsroom: Why are you studying invasive species in the Great Lakes?
Grey-Avis: I’m part of a team that received a $2 million National Science Foundation grant to study how invasive species are transported around the world on shipping vessels. For example, the zebra mussel came to the Great Lakes in the 1980s from the Ukraine and Russia in the ballast tanks of commercial ships. Lake Michigan is clear now, but it didn’t used to be that way. The zebra mussel filters out everything, and it’s really disrupted the food web. Plus, these tiny organisms end up clogging factory pipes. Invasive species cost in the billions every year in the harms they cause. So there’s a lot of interest in predicting and preventing new invasions.
GSU Newsroom: What is the connection between dragonflies and water pollution?
Grey-Avis: Most people don't know this but the adult dragonfly only lives a month or two. Most of its life cycle is in ponds in a stage we call nymph. If we can better understand the nymphs, they can tell us about pollution in ponds because they can be sensitive to pollution. You might say we’re tracking dragonflies to get a better handle on water quality.
GSU Newsroom: Why was the international media so fascinated with your blue crab research in 2010?
Grey-Avis: As a post-doc researcher at Tulane University, I was studying the blue crabs in the Gulf of Mexico. People love the blue crab down there. And, their behavior is interesting because adults live near the coastline but the females go tens to hundreds of miles off shore to spawn their eggs, and the larvae live offshore for a while. We wanted to study that. I started a project there, and two days later the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened, and the whole study changed. I was the only person collecting blue crab larvae in Louisiana at that time, and people were concerned about what was going to happen to them. We were trying to find out if there was a decline in the larvae and how the larvae had been impacted by the dispersant used to break up the oil. We didn’t find any decline in crab larvae, so that was good.
GSU Newsroom: What inspired you to become a scientist?
Grey-Avis: My grandfather was a Mexican immigrant who had a degree in chemistry. He married my grandmother, and she had a master’s degree in biochemistry. He formed a company and they became a great American success story. He invented a popular antacid and became wealthy. I would visit him in California when I was young, and he took me on trips to England and Spain. Our trips always involved the ocean because he loved sciences. It really rubbed off on me.
GSU Newsroom: What’s your response to those who are skeptical about Chicago area students majoring in marine biology?
Grey-Avis: I took the job at GSU to teach and inspire students. I’ve always believed education is the great equalizer. In previous positions, I felt like wasn’t making a big difference in students’ lives. I spent so much time at institutions where they have so many resources like University of Chicago, where I got my master’s and doctorate degrees in ecology and evolution, and at Tulane and Notre Dame, but I wasn’t making an impact with students. Now, I live in Gary right next to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. So many people seem scared of nature. We need to get students out and into the parks. There are great jobs in the parks–federal positions and environmental jobs. Those are good careers. Not everyone is going to be a marine biologist, but if they have a strong foundation in math and science, the world is their oyster.