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Whole Living Awards: Samantha Joye, the Scientist

For the first Whole Living Awards, we're honoring eco-heroines who pour their passion into turning our blue marble green -- including the winner featured here. 

Who
Samantha Joye, 45

Eco Achievement
Sounding the alarm on the Gulf oil spill's impact on marine life

In a walk-in cooler in the department of marine sciences at the University of Georgia-Athens, several hundred sediment samples await analysis inside tall plastic cylinders. Cored from the chilly depths of the Gulf of Mexico, the samples contain layer upon layer of biogeochemical information. The room looks antiseptic, its contents orderly. 

But today, to the horror of a toiling grad student, a cylinder plug has slipped open and gobs of viscous black muck are slowly seeping out. The room smells like an auto repair shop. These cores are no backlog of basic research: They were collected from the site of BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout by Samantha Joye, a world-renowned biogeochemist who has made a career of studying the impact of oil on seawater. 

Joye, 45, was at her office when the rig exploded on April 20 of last year. "All of us who knew anything about the oil industry knew that this was far worse than anyone was saying," she says. 

A small-boned woman with a wide, expressive mouth, Joye hunches over her desk, swaddled in black fleece. Her office walls are covered with photographs of her husband, a mathematical modeler at the university, and their 3-year-old daughter, and with oceanographic maps and other documentary evidence of her fascination with the sea.  

In the weeks following the explosion, Joye helped coordinate the waterborne efforts of researchers from several universities. What these scientists discovered would help shape the debate over the future of deepwater drilling in the Gulf. 

"There's a shocking amount of oil in the deepwater region," Joye told the New York Times. Methane concentrations were 100 to 10,000 times above normal, she told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. Almost overnight, remarks such as these made Joye the media's go-to scientist for quotes that contradicted the government's and BP's estimates of the spill size, its potential impact on sea life, and how much oil remained in the Gulf. 

The oxygen depletion was alarming, Joye said in an interview. "It's impossible to fathom the impact of the spill," she told the BBC. 

Joye might have used the same words to describe the effect the explosion would have on her own life. "It was a zoo; it was crazy," Joye says about the TV cameras and reporters who were chasing her all over campus. 

Joye, who grew up in North Carolina on a tobacco farm, professes to be an introvert, more comfortable in a classroom than in front of a camera. But the media could sense her passion and continued to solicit her opinion; she offered it, in interviews and on her blog with statements such as "The sea floor is a graveyard for the macrofauna." 

Not everyone appreciated Joye's precipitate style. "I felt a lot of pressure to tone it down and shut up," she says. "But if it's bad, I'll tell you it's bad, not 'it's kind of bad.'" 

With oil still spewing in late May 2010, Joye embarked on the first of several research cruises. Her goal was to chemically and microbiologically characterize an oil plume drifting around the Gulf and to measure rates of microbial activity inside and outside the plume. For 20 hours or more each day, Joye and her team mapped he plume, deployed water samplers, and lowered sediment-coring equipment, often wearing protective suits and respirators to cope with the nauseating stench of hydrocarbons. 

While working with a large piece of equipment, Joye injured her hand and neck. Still, Joye considers the two-week trip a great success. She and her colleagues had found the first visible signs of oil in deepwater samples. 

"We need to know where this stuff went and how it affects the ecosystem," she says. "If you stop looking after the well gets capped, people think it's no longer a problem. And that's just not true." 

On two trips, in August and November, Joye examined the Gulf floor. To her dismay, she found oily sediment everywhere she sampled throughout a 2,600-square-mile area. (Joye's findings contradict a year-end report by government scientists who found no evidence of oiled offshore sediment; they also counter a report published in a January 2011 issue of Science stating that bacteria consumed nearly all the spill's methane. "It would take a superhuman microbe to do what they're claiming," she said.) 

The BP well was temporarily capped and stopped leaking last July 15, and was permanently closed in September. But as reporters continued to poke microphones in Joye's face, she realized she had a tremendous opportunity to educate the public. 

"I needed to say it: We are collectively responsible for the BP disaster," she says. "This is a call for green power and for citizens of this country and this world to wake up and see what we're doing to this planet." 

Late for a meeting, Joye zips her fleece jacket, closes her computer, and navigates through the hundreds of plastic trunks, tubs, coolers, and buckets -- the essential paraphernalia of marine research -- that clutter the lab's hallway. A grad student has replaced the plug in the leaking sediment core, but the oily funk lingers. 

Read More: See all Whole Living Awards winners.

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