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New Marine Research Center offers unique environment

August 9, 2018

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) — The Gulf of Mexico provides the perfect environment for oceanic exploration. Unlike the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, it’s warm year-round. It offers waters that stand in for turbid rivers, clear blue oceans and shallow or deep conditions.

Its variety of environments is one reason the University of Southern Mississippi decided to base its new Marine Research Center on the Gulf at the Port of Gulfport. Construction on the $10 million structure was completed earlier this summer, and Southern Miss staff took possession of the building in June.

The center will be officially opened at a ribbon-cutting Sept. 21. Meanwhile, researchers are already operating there and delighting in the center’s high-tech trappings and proximity to the water.

“I would define this building as the gateway (to the ocean),” said Monty Graham, director of the Southern Miss School of Ocean Science and Engineering, which is based at the center. “The purpose of the building is to take these technologies and run them through their paces offshore.

“They go from this building to the ocean.”

The technologies Graham is talking about are some of the most state-of-the-art. They include underwater, unmanned drones, tools to survey the ocean’s landscape and Point Sur, the 135-foot Southern Miss research vessel that calls the center home.

“This building hadn’t really been thought about until we got Point Sur,” Graham said. “We went to the Port of Gulfport, and they said, ‘If you ever get a ship, we’ll help you house it,’ and they built a facility here in Gulfport.”

The unique Gulf environment is the perfect setting for the Marine Research Center, which is a one-of-a-kind facility.

“I do not know of any other place where the building was designed by the oceanographers, engineers and researchers who will be using it,” said Gordon Cannon, Southern Miss vice president for research. “It is super neat.

“We’ve got several companies and federal agencies working with it, and one of the guys said there is not another place like it in the United States. It is amazingly perfect for the mission.”

The Mississippi State Port Authority funded construction of the center, which Southern Miss now rents. There are advantages for the Port Authority, including the prestige the center brings, and the 18,000-square-foot, two-story building’s enhancement and beautification of the industrial entrance to the Port of Gulfport.

Port officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but at the time of the groundbreaking for the building, Jonathan Daniels, the port authority’s executive director and CEO, said the center was an opportunity for partnership with Southern Miss.

“The Port of Gulfport is merely a vehicle for the vision USM has put forth,” he said. “Through their leadership, the port, along with the city of Gulfport, will serve as the epicenter of oceanographic research in the Gulf of Mexico.”

The completion of the Marine Research Center brings to three the locations where Southern Miss is conducting oceanic research. There is Stennis Space Center in Hancock County and the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, a marine and coastal research and education enterprise, at Ocean Springs.

It may well be, however, that the programs offered at the Marine Research Center are the most exclusive. The School of Ocean Science and Engineering offers the only ocean engineering degree in Mississippi and one of only 10 in the nation. The center also offers the only certificate in the country in unmanned underwater drones.

The building itself is also unparalleled. It features labs and classrooms designed to serve students and public and private researchers as they conduct oceanographic analysis and exploration.

In one lab, the floor is comprised of special material that won’t conduct static electricity, so scientists don’t have to worry about getting shocked, especially if they’re working with wet materials. A loading dock 22 feet in mid-air overlooks the port and can be accessed by forklift to bring maritime equipment into a huge fabrication shop where it can be repaired or even constructed.

A conference room with a picture window view of the port features a large, interactive video screen broadcasting pictures of Robert Ballard’s Ocean Exploration Trust live from Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

There is an 8-foot-deep, 20-foot-long, in-ground testing tank filled with clear, green water where deep-sea apparatus can be assessed. A ladder on the side is available for human access.

All the fancy equipment is designed to aid the people who use the Marine Research Center. In addition to Southern Miss students, those include the U.S. Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and private industry.

The Navy and Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment. NOAA did not have experts immediately available for comment.

“This building was built for a purpose,” Graham said. “It’s a unique facility. No one else has anything like it.”

The purpose includes an emphasis on unmanned, underwater drones. Graham said the Navy has indicated a desire for the technology and the Marine Research Center will oblige.

“We could prototype and build just about anything that goes offshore,” he said. “These unmanned drones are where the world’s going.

“There are very few institutions that are leaders in this. The signal for this is coming from the Navy. They want a place where they can come test and evaluate all sizes of things. We’ve picked up on that to provide the environment here.”

Graham said the Marine Research Center offers an uncommon atmosphere where researchers interested in all aspects of a project have the tools to work together.

“It’s rare to come to an institution where the engineers design and build the technology and the scientists are right there to use it,” he said. “We’re at a place where the scientists and engineers can meet and talk to each other and come up with solutions.”

Graham said Southern Miss is now recruiting oceanography students from all over the world. He believes the future is bright for the efforts that will come out of the Marine Research Center.

“There are signs that the world is listening and wanting to be here,” he said. “There are signs that the Navy, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and Department of Homeland Security are interested in more of what we do here.

“We’re doing really good work. I think we are in the driver’s seat as the nation heads toward a future of unmanned systems supporting ocean science and exploration.”

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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