Diver, Chemist Joins Pratt Faculty

For centuries, the forces of weather and winds have sent more than 500 ships to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off North Carolina’s coast. Some were also brought down by another terrifying force -- German U-boat torpedoes during the Second World War.

Forty miles off the coast from Morehead City and in more that 120 feet of water lie two particular victims of U-boat attacks that are of interest to environmental chemist and scuba diver Lee Ferguson. In a way, visiting these wrecks fulfills his main recreational and professional passions – exploring the ocean’s depths and applying his chemistry skills to better understand environmental contamination.

In early November Ferguson, a diver with more than 20 years of experience, and his graduate student Ashley Parks led a team to retrieve specially developed semipermeable membrane devices (SPMDs). These devices are designed to collect samples of oil-derived environmental contaminants that may still be released by the two wrecks into the surrounding waters. The devices had been placed by divers on his team a month earlier.

They also retrieved an SPMD that had been deployed in a ship sunk intentionally as an artificial reef off the Morehead City coast. Because that ship had been carefully scrubbed of all potential contaminants before sinking, it served as a “negative control”. The samples are now being analyzed to determine risks of toxic chemical releases from deteriorating shipwrecks.

“After all this time, there is still fuel oil in these ships,” Ferguson said. “One ship is upside down, trapping much of the oil in the hull. Over time, most the more volatile and water-soluble components have leached out, leaving behind a heavy, gooey residue. In one of the ships, I was able to use a syringe with a specially-designed needle to draw out some samples for chemical analysis.”

Ferguson’s route through his career has been circuitous, and it’s the diverse experiences he has gained personally and professionally which he believes give him a unique perspective and set of skills to apply to the field of Environmental Engineering at Duke. Earlier this summer, he joined the Pratt School of Engineering as associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He also holds a joint appointment in the Nicholas School of the Environment.

He was drawn to the study of environmental contaminants because it involves scientists of many stripes working together to solve a particular problem. Fittingly, his introduction to the Pratt community was through a seminar in the recently organized New Faculty Lecture Series, entitled “Emerging Contaminants and Interdisciplinary Research: A Chemist's Journey into Environmental Science.”

After receiving bachelors of science degrees in both chemistry and marine science from the University of South Carolina, he earned a Ph.D. in coastal oceanography from Stony Brook University.

“I started at South Carolina as a marine science major,” he recalls. “After the first year, my advisor said that if I wanted a job after I graduated, I should think hard about adding a hard science major. By my senior year, I was doing research in an environmental toxicology laboratory. I haven’t looked back”

After he completed his education and postdoctoral work, Ferguson returned to his alma mater as a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“Among the scientists I worked with was my former undergraduate faculty mentor, who by then was the chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at South Carolina,” Ferguson said. “I spent the next six years as an assistant professor cutting my teeth in environmental chemistry while surrounded by chemists who knew a lot more than me. They really pushed me to make my science better and I learned a great deal. I feel confident that I can apply the skills and knowledge I gained to new lines of research in environmental engineering.”

When he came to Duke, Ferguson was no stranger to North Carolina; the coast of is one his favorite places to dive. Among the sites he has visited are the two known U-boats off the North Carolina coast – U-352 and U-85.

“Although I am not trained as an engineer, I am a scientist,” Ferguson said. “As such, I want to better understand both natural and engineered systems in the environment. What are the scientific principles that govern how chemicals move in the environment? As an analytical chemist, my research is driven by the desire to measure new things, in this case contaminants in the aquatic environment. With the tools I have available, I think I can add a new dimension to the study of the environmental science and engineering here at Duke.”

To help him accomplish this goal, Ferguson has just installed in his laboratory a state-of-the-art high-resolution tandem mass spectrometer. While chemists and biochemists have been using this technology for several years primarily for biomolecular and biomedical research, Ferguson plans to use it to identify and quantitatively measure what he calls emerging contaminants, or substances entering the environment that are beginning to be appreciated as potentially harmful.

“These include such compounds as bisphenol-A, certain endocrine disruptors or pharmaceuticals that are showing up in our water supply,” Ferguson said. “Our approach, using high-resolution tandem mass spectrometry to identify emerging contaminants in the aquatic environment is relatively unique within the field of environmental chemistry.”

One of the reasons Ferguson decided to join the faculty at Duke is the recent establishment of the Center for Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT). For this effort, the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency awarded Duke and its collaborators $14.4 million to explore the potential ecological hazards of nanoparticles.

“I spent some time with Mark Wiesner (CEINT director and Pratt professor) at a conference in Switzerland last year, and we talked at length about the center,” Ferguson said. “I was already involved in research that relates to the work being done at CEINT, and it was one of the major reasons I decided to come here. I hope I can use my expertise in environmental and analytical chemistry of nanomaterials in the environment to help them position Duke as one of the leaders in the field.”