Biology Alumnus Puts Education to Work over the Gulf

Aaron Hemme took this photo of an in situ oil burn over the source of the Gulf oil spill.
Aaron Hemme took this photo of an in situ oil burn over the source of the Gulf oil spill.

Oil, oil, everywhere. But where, exactly, is that? A slick of oil on a shimmery sea is no tar ball on a beach, and before you can clean it up, you have to find it.

Petty Officer 1st Class Aaron Hemme has been peering out of MH-60 helicopters and C-130 transport aircraft for weeks, armed with GPS, camera and clipboard, searching for oil floating on the Gulf of Mexico. When he finds it, Hemme takes photos and detailed notes: the type of oil, its color and appearance, whether it’s a light slick or a thick patty. He maps the oil’s location and uploads its coordinates to NOAA, so cleanup boats and their crews can hurry to the spot and begin skimming it up.

It’s also his job to differentiate between seaweed and emulsified oil, while flying at 140 knots travelling at altitudes between 1,000 and 17,500 feet.

“It sounds easy, but it's pretty difficult,” Hemme deadpans.

Hemme, now a marine science technician with the Coast Guard, is a 2006 biological sciences graduate of Michigan Tech. He earned his degree after serving a four-year stint in the service and is now back in the Coast Guard putting his degree to work.

Under the direction of Professor W. Charles Kerfoot, Hemme conducted research on both Torch Lake and Lake Michigan, where the team studied a circular bloom of algae known as “the donut.”

“My training was very useful in identifying false positives from the oil,” says Hemme. “My biology degree has been a huge help. I work with NOAA quite closely, and they also provide a lot of interesting training.”

Once his role over the water is complete, Hemme may be reassigned to work on the Gulf’s shoreline. “I am able to fill a number of roles within an oil spill response,” he says.

It isn’t exactly what he’d planned on doing with a BS in Biological Sciences, but it is satisfying nonetheless. “It feels good to be making a difference, trying to make sure all that oil doesn’t hit Florida’s West Coast,” says Hemme.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.