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Expert Q&A: The Summer of Sargassum?

· 3 min. read



A 5,000-mile-wide mass of sargassum seaweed is drifting toward Florida's beaches. It could arrive, with its brown, slick leaves and rotten eggs smell, around July as the state's Atlantic beaches are filled with locals and tourists.  


Florida Tech oceanographer Kevin Johnson offered his insights into this looming arrival. Is it dangerous? Will it spoil the beaches? Here are his answers to some key questions.


QUESTION: Is this situation really a big deal?

Kevin Johnson: I wouldn’t say it is being overhyped, but it is yet to be determined whether this year will have greater amounts of sargassum in the Atlantic offshore, (visible by satellite) or coming ashore and covering the beaches, a connected but separate phenomenon requiring the cooperation of onshore winds. 2018 was a record-setting year, and this year could exceed what was seen in both locations in 2018. If the winds contribute strongly to sargassum coming ashore, it could make it smelly and hard to find an area of clean sand to set up on the beaches.


QUESTION: Is there a health risk if we head to a beach where sargassum is present?

Kevin Johnson: Sargassum doesn’t produce aerosolized organic toxins, but as it rots on the beach, it will smell and give off hydrogen sulfide gas, or H2S. That's the stuff that smells like rotten eggs. When concentrated in enclosed areas, this gas is toxic and can be harmful. However, in the open air, diluted on an exposed beach, it is more of a smelly nuisance than a genuine health hazard for most people.

But there could be a minor irritation, like itching, after coming into contact with sargassum. There are symbiotic species living in and amongst this seaweed when it is healthy and floating at sea. (These intricate relationships are part of what makes sargassum ecologically significant as a food source, nursery and habitat for many populations.) One of the symbionts is a tiny branching colonial hydroid, related to corals. it grows on sargassum fronds. Hydroid colonies have a sting like corals and jellyfish, but it is generally not severe. Some people may experience itching around their feet or ankles (or any body part that contacts the sargassum hydroids) if they brush up against sargassum in waves or swash, or step on freshly deposited sargassum on the sand. Many people will not be bothered or only mildly troubled by this, but some people may be more sensitive to the hydroids.


QUESTION: I was planning to visit the beach. Should I reconsider now? 

Kevin Johnson: If the winds collude with the large bloom already underway to deliver huge mats to the beach, it could be hard for beachgoers to find a place to sit on the sand, and the smells could make the beach untenable. I emphasize “could” with the hydrogen sulfide smell because it depends on how the sargassum is deposited and how wet it is as it breaks down. In some cases, beached Sargassum can be very dry and in such cases it may not smell too bad. People who are more sensitive to the hydrogen sulfide or to the hydroids on the fresh sargassum may find the experience even more unpleasant. Westerly winds would be helpful from the perspective of keeping sargassum away from beaches, but unfortunately easterlies are pretty common this time of year.


If you're a reporter looking to know more about this topic, let us help with your coverage. Dr. Johnson can be available for phone, Zoom or, depending on scheduling, in-person interviews. 

Connect with:

Kevin B. Johnson, Ph.D.

Professor | Ocean Engineering and Marine Sciences

Dr. Johnson's research program revolves around plankton ecology, invasive species, harmful algae and estuarine restoration.

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Inspired by Palm Trees' Resilience, Florida Tech Researcher Seeks to Strengthen Made Materials

Inspired by the tiny, circular vessels in the trunks of palm trees that allow the iconic plants to bend but not snap in strong winds, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering is researching how to recreate Mother Nature’s handiwork in additive manufacturing. Mirmilad Mirsayar received a three-year, $200,627 research grant from the National Science Foundation’s highly competitive Mechanics of Materials and Structures program under the Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation to study the mechanics and physics of crack propagation in functionally graded cellular structures made by additive manufacturing. That’s the process of creating an object by building it one layer at a time. Mirsayar is the sole principal investigator of the project, “Understanding Mixed-Mode Fracture Mechanics in Additively Manufacturable Functionally Graded Microcellular Solids.” His research is inspired by cellular patterns seen in palm trees and butterfly wings. For example, unlike oak trees and some others, the palm tree’s center contains those vessels, distributed non-uniformly throughout the trunk, that help it survive in Florida’s windy environment. Other biological systems, such as bone, honeycombs and marine sponges, also serve as inspirations from nature. “I’m enjoying this research because I’m learning from nature and I’m applying fundamentals of physics and mathematics to solve a very important engineering problem while training the next generation of engineers and researchers,” Mirsayar said. Materials with cellular structures, such as aircraft wings and artificial bones, are widely used in industries such as aerospace and biomedical. As additive manufacturing has advanced, materials with cellular structures and increasingly complex geometrical patterns can be precisely manufactured. Mirsayar is looking at ways to optimize these strong and light cellular structures made by additive manufacturing to achieve the highest resistance against failure under complex operational loading conditions, such as bending tension, compression and torsion. What could this mean for additive manufacturing? How could stronger materials change what or how we build? Contact Florida Tech Media Communications Director Adam Lowenstein at adam@fit.edu to schedule an interview with Dr. Mirsayar.

August 04, 2023

2 min

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Florida Tech Shark Biologist Stars in National Geographic Program on Shark Attacks

Toby Daly-Engel, the distinguished shark biologist and director of Florida Tech’s Shark Conservation Lab, is a featured expert on “When Sharks Attack…and Why,” an eight-episode program debuting this week as part of National Geographic’s SharkFest 2023. The series debuts July 6 at 9 p.m. Eastern on National Geographic with new episodes airing nightly through July 12. It is also now streaming on Disney+, Hulu and the National Geographic website. The series will air on Nat Geo Wild starting July 26 at 8 p.m. Eastern. As its name suggests, “When Sharks Attack…and Why” investigates shark encounters in America and around the world. “Many attacks are appearing in new and surprising places,” the network notes. Episodes explore incidents in New York, California, Hawaii, Indonesia, Australia and elsewhere. At Florida Tech, Daly-Engel conducts research using a combination of genomics, field ecology and modeling to study shark mating systems and habitat use, and the impacts of climate change on shark populations. On the program, she is our expert guide to anatomical and physiological aspects of sharks, many of which are unique to this species. We first meet Daly-Engel in Episode 1, New York Nightmare. Filmed in her lab, she talks viewers through key parts of a shark’s body using a small dogfish shark. She tells viewers that while a shark’s sense of smell is often touted, these apex predators also have powerful hearing, far better than humans. (In a later episode, she notes a shark’s vision in murky waters is about 10 times stronger than human vision in those conditions.) “I really enjoyed delving into the science behind shark-human interactions,” Daly-Engel said, “and busting the myths that make people afraid of the water.” Daly-Engel is no stranger to SharkFest. Last year she was featured in another SharkFest series, “Shark Attack File,” and she has been on SharkFest and Discovery’s Shark Week programing multiple times, including 2021 when she appeared on three programs across both networks. Looking to know more about shark encounters and attacks? Then let us help with your coverage and questions. Toby Daly-Engel is an assistant professor in the Department of Ocean Engineering and Marine Sciences department at Florida Tech. He's available to speak with media about this topic - simply click on his icon now to arrange an interview today.

Toby S. Daly-Engel, Ph.D.

July 06, 2023

2 min

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Solving sargassum: Florida Tech researchers exploring ways to make seaweed useful

Sargassum, a type of large brown seaweed, has been in the news lately, with a massive blob that’s visible from space and threatening ocean life. University research funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could address the issue, while also helping solve another problem in our water. Toufiq Reza, an assistant professor of chemical engineering in the Department of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering and Sciences, along with research students Cadianne Chambers, Swarna Saha, Savannah Grimes and Josh Calhoun, were part of the research paper, “Physical and morphological alteration of Sargassum‐derived ultraporous superactivated hydrochar with remarkable cationic dye adsorption.” The paper was published in the May edition of Springer Nature’s Biomass Conversion and Biorefinery journal. The paper is part of a three-year, nearly $400,000 EPA grant to examine different uses of sargassum. It explains that the team can produce biochar from sargassum that can filter water. Though the team has tested model dye in this paper, they plan to extend their research for other applications including harmful algal bloom remediation and nutrient recovery in the future. While sargassum has been around for centuries (Christopher Columbus is credited with the first written account after he encountered it in 1492), and you’ve probably seen bits of brownish seaweed on the beach – it sometimes smells like rotten eggs – the quantities in the ocean and washing up on shores are a more recent phenomenon. There are multiple reasons behind the increased amount of sargassum, including global warming that intensifies sargassum production and nutrient runoff making its way to ocean water and overfertilizing the seaweed growth. More sargassum is expected to show up on Florida shores in the future, inspiring the team to explore more positive uses of the abundant seaweed. “In the next couple of years, we’ll be seeing much more sargassum coming into our way. It’s not a common practice to utilize sargassum,” Reza said. “We go to a beach and then we see a little bit of sargassum just dried out. That doesn’t bother us that much, but when it started to come as a foot-tall sargassum wave, that’s where it gets more alarming.” Sargassum in the lab is labor intensive. Because it contains salt from the ocean, it is washed with tap water first, then put in a freezer for preservation. Next, it goes through hydrothermal carbonization, a thermochemical process that uses heat and pressure to convert biomass and organic waste (such as the sargassum being used) into solid hydrochar. Lastly, the solid char goes through pyrolysis, where it is heated in a high-temperature, oxygen-free chamber into a biochar that is used to filter water. For Swarna Saha, a first-year doctoral student, her goal as a researcher is to identify an environmental problem and come up with a sustainable solution. Having grown up in Bangladesh around textile factories that generate dyes that pollute the surface water, she was inspired to work on solutions that improved water quality with biochar. “I came in the project when we were experimenting on dye adsorption and saw how a tiny amount of biochar changes the color of the water,” she said. “For me, seeing the results made me the happiest. When we saw that our biochar is effective, that is the biggest achievement for me. That made me happy.” Cadianne Chambers, a second-year doctoral researcher, was motivated by her home country of Jamaica and its massive issues with sargassum. Chambers has heard accounts of fishermen unable to go out to sea because of the sargassum buildup. A popular destination for summer vacation, Jamaica is facing serious environmental and economic problems with waves of sargassum. “A team in Jamaica saw that article and they reached out to us, and they’re trying to cultivate sargassum. They want us to teach them how to make export-quality hydrochar and biochar, which could help solve their environmental problem and generate revenues,” Chambers said. “So, everything is just connecting nicely and I’m hoping to continue our collaboration with them. If it’s something that I can go home and put my PhD research to work and help the community, that would be really satisfying.” Looking to know more about sargassum and the ground-breaking research taking place at Florida Tech? Then let us help with your coverage and questions.  Toufiq Reza is an assistant professor in the biomedical and chemical engineering and sciences department at Florida Tech. He's available to speak with media about this topic - simply click on his icon now to arrange an interview today.

Toufiq Reza, Ph.D.

June 21, 2023

3 min

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Florida Tech Scientist to Study Deep-Space Agriculture After Planetary Society Grant Award

No matter where humans travel, sustenance remains a necessity. Finding a bite to eat during a visit to New York, for example, is no problem. When the destination is a bit farther away, such as Mars, the options are not as plentiful there or on the long journey to get there. That’s where Florida Tech’s Andrew Palmer comes in. He and other scientists are exploring ways to feed our explorers, and a new competitive grant from the Planetary Society will fund work that examines the two most likely ways to produce food during travel to these far-flung spots: in soil or something like soil, or in water. Palmer and his team were awarded a $50,000 Science and Technology Empowered by the Public (STEP) grant, the Planetary Society recently announced. Their project: “Evaluation of food production systems for lunar and Martian agriculture.” For the next year, they will grow radish microgreens, lettuce and tomatoes in identical environmental conditions with one major exception: one batch will be grown hydroponically, and another will be grown in regolith – like lunar or Martian soil. The aim of the experiment is to characterize and compare the two methods, both of which have merits and shortcomings. “It may be that a combination of these approaches, tailored to the diverse needs of different crops, is the best way to provide sustainable and productive agriculture,” Palmer said. “Until now, there have been no direct comparison studies between hydroponic and regolith-based systems for any crop targeted for space applications. We are excited to address this knowledge gap.” The team, which includes experts in plant physiology and biochemistry as well as space agriculture and systems efficiency analysis, will test their hypothesis that faster growing crops like microgreens will be better suited for hydroponic systems even in the long term, while slower-growing crops like tomatoes may favor a regolith-based production system. Palmer and his co-investigator, Rafael Loureiro from Winston-Salem University, are joined by collaborators J. Travis Hunsucker and Thiara Bento from Florida Tech, Laura E. Fackrell at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Jéssica Carneiro Oliveira at Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Care to delve a little deeper? Palmer and a second STEP grant recipient, Dartmouth College professor Jacob Buffo, spoke to the Planetary Society senior communications advisor Mat Kaplan about their respective projects. The segment with Palmer begins at the 23:57 mark and the piece is linked above. Looking to know more about what it will take to feed our deep-space explorers? Then let us help with your questions and coverage. Dr. Andrew Palmer is an associate professor of biological sciences at Florida Tech and a go-to expert in the field of Martian farming. He is available to speak with media regarding this and related topics. Simply click on his icon now to arrange an interview.

Andrew Palmer, Ph.D.

June 02, 2023

2 min

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Expert Q&A: The Summer of Sargassum?

A 5,000-mile-wide mass of sargassum seaweed is drifting toward Florida's beaches. It could arrive, with its brown, slick leaves and rotten eggs smell, around July as the state's Atlantic beaches are filled with locals and tourists.   Florida Tech oceanographer Kevin Johnson offered his insights into this looming arrival. Is it dangerous? Will it spoil the beaches? Here are his answers to some key questions. QUESTION: Is this situation really a big deal? Kevin Johnson: I wouldn’t say it is being overhyped, but it is yet to be determined whether this year will have greater amounts of sargassum in the Atlantic offshore, (visible by satellite) or coming ashore and covering the beaches, a connected but separate phenomenon requiring the cooperation of onshore winds. 2018 was a record-setting year, and this year could exceed what was seen in both locations in 2018. If the winds contribute strongly to sargassum coming ashore, it could make it smelly and hard to find an area of clean sand to set up on the beaches. QUESTION: Is there a health risk if we head to a beach where sargassum is present? Kevin Johnson: Sargassum doesn’t produce aerosolized organic toxins, but as it rots on the beach, it will smell and give off hydrogen sulfide gas, or H2S. That's the stuff that smells like rotten eggs. When concentrated in enclosed areas, this gas is toxic and can be harmful. However, in the open air, diluted on an exposed beach, it is more of a smelly nuisance than a genuine health hazard for most people. But there could be a minor irritation, like itching, after coming into contact with sargassum. There are symbiotic species living in and amongst this seaweed when it is healthy and floating at sea. (These intricate relationships are part of what makes sargassum ecologically significant as a food source, nursery and habitat for many populations.) One of the symbionts is a tiny branching colonial hydroid, related to corals. it grows on sargassum fronds. Hydroid colonies have a sting like corals and jellyfish, but it is generally not severe. Some people may experience itching around their feet or ankles (or any body part that contacts the sargassum hydroids) if they brush up against sargassum in waves or swash, or step on freshly deposited sargassum on the sand. Many people will not be bothered or only mildly troubled by this, but some people may be more sensitive to the hydroids. QUESTION: I was planning to visit the beach. Should I reconsider now?  Kevin Johnson: If the winds collude with the large bloom already underway to deliver huge mats to the beach, it could be hard for beachgoers to find a place to sit on the sand, and the smells could make the beach untenable. I emphasize “could” with the hydrogen sulfide smell because it depends on how the sargassum is deposited and how wet it is as it breaks down. In some cases, beached Sargassum can be very dry and in such cases it may not smell too bad. People who are more sensitive to the hydrogen sulfide or to the hydroids on the fresh sargassum may find the experience even more unpleasant. Westerly winds would be helpful from the perspective of keeping sargassum away from beaches, but unfortunately easterlies are pretty common this time of year. If you're a reporter looking to know more about this topic, let us help with your coverage. Dr. Johnson can be available for phone, Zoom or, depending on scheduling, in-person interviews. 

Kevin B. Johnson, Ph.D.

March 16, 2023

3 min

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Expert Q & A: Florida Tech's Csaba Palotai talks about the green comet's return after 50,000 years away

Looking to the skies over the next week or so, you may see something you will not see again for 50,000 years. This occasional visitor, C/2022 E3 (ZTF), also known the “green comet,” will make its closest approach to Earth Feb. 2. We asked Csaba Palotai, aerospace, physics and space sciences associate professor, and Amelia Brumfield, graduate research assistant, about the green comet, what we can learn from it, where to look for it and more. Q: Why is this comet green? Palotai: The composition of a particular comet determines what the color is. This one has most likely diatomic carbon in it, and then that carbon comes out and interacts with the sunlight. Certain photochemical processes take place and that gives it the green color. This is not for every comet. Q: Why haven’t we seen this comet in 50,000 years? Brumfield: It has a very eccentric orbit. Our orbit, we go around the sun every year, but this comet, its orbit is on a scale of thousands and thousands of years. There's a chance that no one's ever seen it. Dr. Palotai had mentioned that it might have come by during the ice age. It might not even have passed by Earth (to be visible) at that time, if it did. So, it won't be back and if it does even come back, we're going to be long gone. It's just a cool chance to see something that maybe no one's ever seen before and might never ever get to see again. What can we learn from this comet? Palotai: This comet has an interesting orbit and then people study this orbit after the discovery of the comet. They figure it out that this is coming from a part of the solar system called the Oort Cloud (named for the Dutch astronomer who first described it, Jan Oort). This region of the solar system is not well understood because it is very far from us, so actually we haven't seen any objects in this region. It is thought that there are about, give or take, a trillion icy objects in this region. Some of them are smaller ones, some of them are bigger ones. And the only way we know about these things is that whenever comets like this come from that region. Q: When is a good time to view this comet? Palotai: In the next few days, or maybe in the next couple of weeks or so is the greatest chance to observe it. You need several factors to have a comet to be visible with a naked eye, starting with clear, dark skies. Beyond the naked eye, if you have binoculars or a smaller telescope, you should also be able to see it. Q: Where can you view this comet? Brumfield: You can still see it between the Little Dipper and the Big Dipper, and then around Jan. 30 it should be closer to the North Star, so you can look for it in that area of the sky. And the best time to view it is very late at night, so between midnight and dawn. And then the closest approach is going to be Feb. 2, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's going to be the best time to view it. If you're a reporter covering the green comet, let us help with any of your questions about this rare celestial phenomenon. Csaba Palotai is available to speak with you. Simply click on his icon now to arrange an interview today.

Csaba Palotai, Ph.D.

January 30, 2023

3 min

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Expert Q & A: Florida Tech faculty experts discuss the Artemis mission and why it matters

Artemis 1 Launch Starts New Lunar Exploration and Research The Artemis 1 mission has hit its halfway point. The uncrewed capsule Orion is orbiting the moon in the first spaceflight of NASA’s Artemis program. Over the entire Artemis program, NASA plans to establish the first long-term lunar presence via a base camp on the moon, then will use what was learned from the moon development for a mission to send the first astronauts to Mars. Founded as a school providing classes for the pioneering space technicians at what would become NASA, Florida Tech has been closely associated with the space program since its inception. The Artemis mission is no different, as over 25 Florida Tech alumni are working on the mission as part of the Exploration Ground Systems crew. We spoke with Florida Tech aerospace, physics and space sciences assistant professor Paula do Vale Pereira, Ph.D., and Don Platt, Ph.D., associate professor of space systems, about the Artemis mission, what it could mean for future missions and more. Q: What makes the Artemis rocket and mission significant? Pereira: The Space Launch System (or SLS for short) is the rocket that is central to the Artemis mission. The SLS will be the third rocket in history to be capable of launching humans to the Moon. Previously, the American Saturn V and Soviet N1 had that capability – none of the four N1 launch attempts were successful, though. Thus, the SLS could become the second rocket to ever fly humans to the Moon. The SLS has been under development for over a decade and one of its key technological differences from Saturn V is the focus on long-term, sustained access to the lunar surface. The SLS will power the Orion capsule to lunar orbit, where it will dock to the Lunar Gateway (currently under development). The Gateway will be a small space station orbiting the Moon and will have docking ports for the Orion capsule and different lander modules, such as SpaceX’s Starship. This coordinated infrastructure means that the SLS needs to carry only the Orion capsule and the crew, instead of having the carry the lander, command and service modules, as the Saturn V did. Because they don’t need to bring all these other modules with them, a larger quantity of useful equipment and extra crew members can be brought along, opening doors for a longer and even more productive human presence on the Moon. The SLS rocket also has other architectures which, instead of carrying humans, can carry large amounts of cargo to the Gateway, which can then be transferred to the lunar surface. This cargo capacity will be fundamental in building the infrastructure necessary for humans to strive on the Moon. Platt: Indeed, the SLS will be the largest launch vehicle ever flown and will put on a spectacular show on the Space Coast. This Artemis I mission will also test out the Orion capsule in deep space for an extended mission. The capability for the capsule to support human life in deep space will be demonstrated. As well, there are mannequins onboard Orion with radiation sensors in them. They will measure the radiation exposure in deep space and around the Moon to help verify how much radiation human astronauts may be exposed to. And I would add, much like the shuttle opened up Low Earth Orbit for all of humanity, Artemis will do the same for lunar exploration. Q: What is the significance of Artemis to NASA-sponsored space exploration? Platt: Artemis is the next major NASA human space program. It is also NASA’s first program to go back to the Moon since Apollo. It is designed to be the first in multiple efforts to expand human presence in space beyond Low Earth Orbit. It is also significant in that it has a goal to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon. So, this is an inclusive program to hopefully involve all of humanity in future human space exploration and one day settlement. Q: How can moon-orbiting mission of Artemis help future space exploration? Platt: We need to demonstrate modern capabilities to get large spacecraft that can support human exploration to the Moon. The first step is to place them in orbit to test them out and soon to get astronauts experience in that environment as well. Much like Apollo 8 first orbited the Moon before humans landed on the Moon in Apollo 11 we are now testing and demonstrating new technology and capabilities first in lunar orbit. Pereira: I personally think the most important development in the Artemis mission is the coordination between different providers, especially the commercial partnership with companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin. The commercial partners will provide the lander systems which will take the astronauts from the Lunar Gateway to the lunar surface, a level of dependable trust that has only recently started to be common in NASA’s history. If you're a reporter looking to know more about this topic, let us help. Dr. Platt is available to speak with media regarding this and related topics. Simply click on his icon now to arrange an interview today. Contact Director of Media Communications Adam Lowenstein at adam@fit.edu to schedule an interview with Dr. do Vale Pereira.

Don Platt, Ph.D.

November 28, 2022

4 min

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Interested in the true pursuit of greatness? Take a look at what Florida Tech has to offer

If you are up for the challenge and want to begin your own relentless pursuit of greatness, let us help. The Florida Tech campus is located in the heart of Florida’s Space Coast. That means proximity to key agencies and operations, such as NASA-Kennedy Space Center, SpaceX, Embraer, L3Harris Corporation, Northrop Grumman and more. Oh, and did we mention there are miles and miles of Atlantic Ocean beaches just moments away?  Learn more about all Florida Tech has to offer. Get in touch today! Simply contact: Adam Lowenstein Director of Media Communications (321) 674-8964 adam@fit.edu

November 28, 2022

1 min

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Feeding astronauts and growing food on Mars - Take a look at what Florida Tech has to offer

Astrobiology student Hannah Blackburn is relentless about building a better future—not just for the next generation, but for all humankind. As we look to Mars in hopes of supporting human life, Hannah is developing ways to grow nutritious food on the Red Planet. As an astrobiology student, Hannah is able to take an interdisciplinary approach to her research, which is providing the building blocks for what gardening on Mars could eventually look like. Looking to know more about Florida Tech and the amazing programs like astrobiology? Let us help. Simply contact: Adam Lowenstein Director of Media Communications (321) 674-8964 adam@fit.edu

November 16, 2022

1 min

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