Research at steady pace as Ecology Lab seeks director

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Four years after the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory nearly closed, the 61-year-old research lab is still going -- not exactly going strong, but not on the brink of extinction, either.

Associate Professor Dr. Chris Romanek of the Savannah River Ecology Lab washes off one of the fossilized giant oysters along the bank of the Savannah River near Shell Bluff in May 2006. Funding over the years has been dramatically reduced, but researchers continue work.   File/Staff
File/Staff
Associate Professor Dr. Chris Romanek of the Savannah River Ecology Lab washes off one of the fossilized giant oysters along the bank of the Savannah River near Shell Bluff in May 2006. Funding over the years has been dramatically reduced, but researchers continue work.

"It's doing fine. It's stable," said Carl Bergmann, a UGA assistant vice president for research and a former director of the Savannah River lab.

A prospective candidate to become the lab's next director visited Athens on Tuesday, giving a public presentation in the auditorium of the UGA Ecology Building and meeting with administrators and ecologists.

Tuesday's visitor, Gene Rhodes, assistant director of the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., is one of three finalists for the director job, said Bergmann.

Administrators hope to have the leader named by September, he said.

UGA officials picked a candidate for the job this spring, but he withdrew for personal reasons, Bergmann said.

UGA researchers have been conducting research continuously at the lab, at the Savannah River Site in Aiken County, for more than six decades.

Eugene Odum, for whom UGA's Odum School of Ecology is named, began doing research there in 1952, although the laboratory wasn't formally established until 10 years later.

Odum and other scientists wanted to study the effects of radiation at the site, formerly used to manufacture weapons-grade nuclear fuel.

At one time the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory generated more research funding than any other single campus unit, employing more than 200 scientists and other workers.

About 55 scientists and other employees work there now, Bergmann said -- up from 45 about four years ago.

In 2007, U.S. Department of Energy officials unexpectedly slashed the lab's funding to $1 million, down from $8 million two years earlier, and began talking about cutting off funding entirely.

Future federal support for the lab is uncertain, Bergmann said.

"It's obviously much-reduced. We have a much smaller group of scientists. But the people there are committed. There are a number of enthusiastic young faculty," said SREL research ecologist Rebecca Sharitz.

"We still have the land," she said.

In some parts of the site, generations of scientists have been recording data about the land, water and living things for decades.

At about 310 square miles, the Savannah River Site is the largest protected wildlife habitat in the Eastern United States, bigger than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


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