USM partners on new $94-million ocean exploration venture

Published 2:32 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) is joining four other nationally renowned ocean science institutions to form The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute (OECI).

USM’s School of Ocean Science and Engineering (SOSE), Ocean Exploration Trust, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of New Hampshire, and the University of Rhode Island will work with NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) to survey an estimated 3 billion acres of submerged U.S. territory.

“The partnership with these four other nationally renowned ocean science institutions speaks volumes about The University of Southern Mississippi’s reputation in ocean science and engineering,” said Dr. Gordon Cannon, Vice President for Research at USM. “We’ve worked hard to build this reputation and are grateful to have received strong support from the State of Mississippi, the Gulf Coast and our own University leadership.”

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In joining OECI, USM is initially set to receive $11.25 million over five years to fund a multitude of ocean science projects including much needed exploration of the Gulf of Mexico.

“The collaborative partnership with NOAA and the four other institutions as well as the associated funding will allow USM to advance our research in developing advanced underwater technologies that fit well with our current international research profile,” said Dr. Cannon.

SOSE harnesses elements from key areas of USM, including the Division of Marine Science (DMS) at the John C. Stennis Space Center, the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, and the University’s fleet of research vessels, to create a regionally, nationally and internationally recognized leader in marine science.

“I am proud of how The University of Southern Mississippi’s research profile continues to expand, especially as it relates to our ocean science and engineering programs that support our state’s ‘Blue Economy,’” said University President Rodney D. Bennett. “This new partnership validates why USM is classified as an R1 institution and confirms our ability to conduct meaningful research with some of the leading institutions in the nation. I look forward to the work that will emerge from this partnership and how it will impact our state and beyond.”

The primary goal of OECI is to provide NOAA access to powerful academic research capabilities located at the individual institutions. In this program, researchers are focusing on areas that will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of ocean exploration in deep and remote areas of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. This will be done through new robotics and telepresence approaches.

“The Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute will be the next quantum leap for USM and the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast in ocean science and engineering,” said Dr. Monty Graham, SOSE director and USM Lead-Investigator for OECI. “We are rapidly becoming one of this country’s elite oceanographic centers, and the growth we are experiencing should give the USM community, the Coast and the state great pride in how we have all worked together to increase our ‘Blue Economy’ and all the opportunities around it.”

OECI’s research data and information will be readily usable by the public, which aims to increase participation of underrepresented populations in ocean exploration.

“This program will be transformative to our ongoing efforts at USM to move Mississippi’s ‘Blue Economy’ forward by providing STEM-related education that feeds STEM-related economic growth,” Dr. Graham said. “The innovative new research capabilities will also help USM attract the best and brightest ocean science faculty and students.”

Some of the educational benefits for South Mississippi include: technical training for autonomous vehicles, information technology and telepresence, STEM education opportunities for local schools, and telepresence of ocean exploration to USM’s Marine Education Center and the Mississippi Aquarium through USM’s ongoing partnership.

“I am pleased to hear of NOAA’s selection of The University of Southern Mississippi as one of the institutions that will perform research as part of the OECI,” said Gov. Phil Bryant. “I welcome these funds to help us continue to focus on building a strong foundation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Mississippians have embraced the Blue Economy with all our energy and ingenuity.”

Gov. Bryant said the OECI allows Mississippi to play a pivotal role in the future of ocean exploration and education.

“This Institute will allow Southern Miss to collaborate with entities all across the country on ocean exploration and at the same time provide a holistic plan to strengthen Mississippi’s long-term blue economy strategy,” he said. “I applaud their efforts.”

USM is also teaming with Tuskegee University to train STEM students from underrepresented communities in unmanned technologies for ocean exploration, including both maritime and aerial drones, and to provide experiences both on shore and at sea as a means to attract them into employment pipelines within and beyond the cooperative institute.

Congressman Steven Palazzo believes the data from the OECI’s missions will be invaluable to the public understand of our seafloors, something that until now, has remained a mystery.

“USM continues to lead in strategic data acquisition and advancing the understanding of our seafloors,” he said. “USM has proved they’re capable in developing purposeful usage of unmanned maritime systems, and I have no doubt they will continue to excel in this undertaking. They are very deserving of this selection to form the Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute and will continue advancing our understanding of America’s underwater territory.”

Dr. Robert Ballard, known for his 1985 discovery of the RMS Titanic, is the Lead Investigator for the Ocean Exploration Trust, and will open a third operating base at the Port of Gulfport for Dr. Ballard’s Ocean Exploration Trust, which also operates out of Rhode Island and California.

“The University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Ocean Science and Engineering is playing a leadership role in helping to develop new applications for Ocean Exploration and Educational Outreach particularly for underserved members of our population,” he said. “The team we have put together is the present and future of ocean exploration.”

Senator Roger Wicker believes this project isn’t just a great opportunity for USM, but for the entire Gulf Coast.

“This partnership with NOAA is an example of The University of Southern Mississippi’s continued excellence in marine research and engineering,” Wicker said. “I was glad to support USM’s application for this project because I know the technology we develop in Mississippi will advance America’s knowledge of our ocean territory and improve opportunities for our brilliant faculty, researchers, and students on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”