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Fall 1998

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A Biosphere of Influence
By Judy Bolyard Purdy

The federal agency that made weapons-grade nuclear materials during the Cold War is the same one that helped launch the career of Eugene Odum, often called the "Father of Modern Ecology." In 1951, before the Atomic Energy Commission began building the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., it selected Odum's proposal to conduct ecological surveys of the site's natural areas.

The UGA ecologist set up make-shift research facilities in an abandoned barn at the SRS in June 1951. With a handful of graduate students, he began what would become a world leader among ecology research institutes, the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.

Odum was quick to see that the large, relatively isolated natural areas surrounding the nuclear reactors would make a unique, self-contained outdoor laboratory where many scientists could do ecosystem-level research.

Nearly half a century later, scientists continue long-term ecological studies at SREL, helping advance our understanding of ecosystems and develop new solutions for environmental problems. Ongoing studies include tracking radioactive materials through the environment, devising environmental cleanup strategies and measuring long-term effects of such things as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Shortly after Odum started the Savannah River Site research, UGA received an invitation and funding from tobacco magnate R. J. Reynolds, Jr. for Odum and others to begin long-term studies of pristine coastal environments.

Reynolds owned a tract of Sapelo Island, Ga., a sparsely populated, 11-mile-long island. In 1954, the UGA Marine Institute was created at Sapelo to study a wide range of coastal and marine ecosystems: saltwater marshes, live oak forests and barrier sand dunes, to name a few. Research findings have enlightened scientists about the importance of coastal ecosystems to healthy oceans. The findings also helped citizens pass strong laws to protect the state's fragile coastal environments, which serve as nurseries for many marine organisms, including numerous fish and shellfish species.

"People think salt marshes are land to be developed and built on, but they're squishy-squashy and should never be treated that way," Odum said. "The United States now has less than half the wetlands it had when the first Europeans settled here. These areas should be public domain, taken out of the market and not for sale."

By the early '60s, UGA was becoming a powerhouse of ecological research and needed a centralized department to administer, coordinate and promote its team approach to interdisciplinary ecosystem research. In 1961, Odum helped establish the UGA Institute of Ecology and became its first director, a position he held until he retired in 1984. The world-renown institute offers ecological research opportunities as well as bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. Institute membership includes more than 250 faculty, senior scientists, technicians and graduate students, and they represent on-campus units, off-campus facilities - the SREL, the Marine Institute, the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory (see story on page 7) in Franklin, N.C., the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichuaway in Newton, Ga. - and state and federal agencies.

"One thing that amazes me about Gene is his ability to start a project and keep it growing," said Gary Barrett, the UGA Eugene Odum Professor of Ecology. "He's like a great athlete who can go for many years. He can build and sustain a record. There will be enough momentum to keep his programs going long after he's gone."

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Eugene Odum
Eugene Odum