Bay Campus (B)log: The Scott W. Nixon Lecture Series: Remaining Skeptical, Seven Years Later

In the fall of 2012, new graduate students were starting classes here at the Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO), the emergent contaminants called PFASs were being discovered in the drinking water supply for Barnstable, Mass. on Cape Cod (at the time, one of only a handful of sites in the U.S. where they had been found), and planning was starting at the Coastal Institute (CI) for the first lecture in a new series in honor of Scott W. Nixon who had passed away in May.

Today, seven years later, most if not all of those students have graduated, there are hundreds of known PFAS sites in the U.S., and the CI is preparing to host the Seventh Annual Scott W. Nixon lecture. The April 11 lecture is on “PFASs Around the Globe: effects on human health of oceanic pollution in the Arctic” by Pál Weihe, MD, Head of the Department of Occupational Medicine and Public Health and Professor at the University of the Faroe Islands.

What a difference seven years makes.

You may have seen the lecture announcement or the articles in the local newspapers. But what are PFASs and how does research on them relate to the late GSO professor Scott W. Nixon?

What are PFASs? 

GSO Professor Rainer Lohmann holding a PFOS model. Photo courtesy of V.M. Berounsky

I sat down with GSO professor Rainer Lohmann to get the scoop on PFASs. Rainer is the Director of a new multiyear, multi-institutional study called STEEP that is measuring PFASs and their human health effects in Barnstable, Mass., the Faroe Islands, and elsewhere. The acronym STEEP stands for “Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFASs” and is funded by the Superfund Research Program of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the United States’ National Institute for Health (NIH).

3D Model of a PFOS compound, a PFAS. Photo courtesy of V.M. Berounsky.

PFASs are a group of over a hundred man-made chemicals that are per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances. Rainer showed me a 3-D model of one of the most common chemicals, PFOS, which is short for perfluorooctane sulfonate or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid.  (See model in photo to right.) It’s a fully fluorinated organic acid, meaning it has a backbone of carbon atoms with fluorine atoms bonded to all the carbon atoms except the last one which is attached to a functional group containing sulfur, oxygen, and hydrogen. Because of their chemical structure, any member of the PFAS family is hard to break down.  That fact is the origin of the moniker “forever chemicals”.

Why are we concerned about PFASs?

Although the acronym PFAS is a little awkward to pronounce (its usually spoken as “Pea fas”), it is fast becoming a household word. That’s because PFASs are found in just about every household worldwide. They are used in making the non-stick cooking surface called Teflon. They are in the coatings on rain jackets, rugs, and upholstery that make them waterproof, stain resistant or flame retardant. They are in the coatings applied to pizza boxes and “take out” boxes that keep the food from sticking to the containers. They are what makes certain types of dental floss slip easily between your teeth. They are important for firefighting in industry since they can extinguish (liquid) fuel fires (but they are not found in home fire extinguishers).

Rainer in his lab with samples being analyzed for PFASs. His lab was Scott Nixon’s former lab in Horn Building. Photo by V.M. Berounsky.

The problem is that PFASs are very good at what they are supposed to do, and they don’t easily break down, so they are very persistent in the environment and they bioaccumulate. Just like DDT, PFASs can travel up the food chain. It is estimated that 98 percent of Americans have PFASs in their blood. The chemicals that are PFASs are toxic to humans and can cause increased cholesterol levels, chronic kidney disease, liver problems, certain types of cancer, and other medical conditions. Although some PFASs are no longer manufactured in the U.S. because of their toxicity, many derivations of PFASs are being produced here and also they are manufactured in other countries. PFASs are spread around the globe through winds in the atmosphere and ocean currents. On land, PFASs contaminate and travel with ground water.

A Coastal Ecologist with a “Big Picture” Perspective

Although there are several distinguished lectures series at GSO, only two are in honor of GSO professors. One is the Charles and Marie Fish Lecture, named after the scientist-founders of the Narragansett Marine Lab which preceded GSO. The other is the Scott W. Nixon lecture series.

GSO Professor Scott W. Nixon, October 2011. Photo courtesy V.M. Berounsky

Scott came to GSO in September of 1969 as a research associate. Dean John Knauss saw Scott’s potential and promoted him to assistant professor as soon as Scott received his Ph.D. in Botany (Ecology) from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1970. Scott was 26. He moved up the ranks of the faculty and was promoted to full professor in 1980. Scott served as major professor for 37 GSO students plus four students who were still working with him at the time of his sudden death in 2012. Scott was at GSO for over four decades. In addition to being on the faculty, from 1984 to 2000 he was Coordinator and then Director of the Rhode Island Sea Grant College Program. In 2004 he was appointed UNESCO/Cousteau Chair in Coastal Ecology and Global Assessment. Scott was also very active in the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, serving as co-editor-in-chief of their journal, Estuaries and Coasts for many years, in addition to speaking at their conferences and having students speak also.

Photo of GSO Professor Scott W. Nixon at the end of the Combined Sewer Outfall Tunnel inside the Field Point Wastewater Treatment facility, April 2012. The treated outflow enters Narragansett Bay. Photo courtesy V.M. Berounsky.

In Scott’s own words, his area of specialization throughout his professional life was coastal ecology with emphasis on estuaries, lagoons, and wetlands; ecosystem-level experiments using mesocosms; comparative and historical ecology; and numerical simulation models. Scott was respected worldwide for his knowledge and his studies of how coastal and estuarine ecosystems work. He investigated ecosystems that were as far away as Kenya and Malaysia and as close as Narragansett Bay, GSO’s mesocosms, and Rhode Island coastal ponds.  He studied or served on panels investigating ecosystems and their problems that were as varied as nutrient enrichment in the lagoons of Venice, the restoration of the Everglades, algal blooms in the Potomac Estuary, the fisheries of Egypt’s Nile, and nutrients in the Massachusetts Bay Wastewater Outfall.

Giovanni Verrazano, the Italian explorer who was the first to explore and document Narragansett Bay. This is the image that Scott had in his talk. Scott did calculations to see how clear the water was at that time. Image courtesy GSO archives.

Over the years, Scott gave numerous talks ranging from “Seminars over Beer” in the North Lab/Mosby Center at GSO, to invited international talks. One of his most well-known was called “Could Verrazzano See His Toes?,” the lecture he gave when he received the B.H. Ketchum Award for outstanding coastal research from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1992. In the lecture, Scott discussed the impact of historical and present nutrient inputs to Narragansett Bay from a variety of sources and the resulting water clarity in the Bay. In 2012 Scott updated this talk to take into account new nutrient data and presented it as the plenary speaker at the International Association for Landscape Ecology. Scott could take a complex scientific issue and discussed it in terms understandable to most everyone. He was also known for giving talks that put specific research projects into a larger perspective.

So it was fitting when the Coastal Institute decided to start an annual lecture series in his memory. As noted on the institute’s website: “Each year, an invited researcher delivers a keynote lecture and attends a series of daytime and evening events available to other researchers and graduate students. This promotes inter-institution collaboration and highlights the research being conducted at the GSO.” The CI has supported this series for seven years.


The Scott W. Nixon Lecture Series

Some of the announcements for previous Scott W. Nixon Lecture speakers. Photo courtesy V.M. Berounsky

“Science is a social enterprise, we communicate through the scientific literature, and we must do nothing to undermine the integrity of that communication. Both in sending and in receiving information, we must remain skeptical.”  This is the quote by Scott W. Nixon that, according to Judith Swift, Director of the Coastal Institute, guides the committee charged with selecting the speaker each year. They also consider “what would Scott want to hear about?” You can learn about – and in some cases watch – previous lectures on the Coastal Institute’s website.

Announcement for this year’s speaker

When considering a speaker for this year, Judith and the committee immediately thought about the STEEP Program. Judith, Nicole Rohr and Amber Neville, all of the Coastal Institute, are the leads of the “research translation core,” which is charged with communicating information on PFASs, their effect on human health and STEEP research results to stakeholders and others so they are familiar with the scientists’ work.  They and the rest of the committee thought it would be fascinating to have an opportunity to hear the story of the work of Dr. Pál Weihe, of the Department of Occupational Medicine and Public Health and the University of the Faroe Island. Dr. Weihe is the clinical lead for STEEP’s work with the people of the remote Faroe Islands. He has been measuring PFASs levels in their blood for over a decade, trying to determine where the high levels are coming from, and researching the implications for their health. You can hear about this work on Thursday, April 11, at 3:30 in the Coastal Institute when he talks about “PFASs Around the Globe: effects on human health of oceanic pollution in the Arctic”. If you can’t make it in person, watch online at:

As noted on the STEEP website, the development of household products containing PFASs “were part of the ‘better living through chemistry’ era” that started in the 1950’s. One wonders if people had looked at those chemicals more skeptically back then, as Scott might have encouraged, would they be as prevalent as they are now?

Addendum added April 19, 2019:

The Seventh Annual Scott W. Nixon Lecture took place on Thursday, April 11. The Coastal Institute’s Amber Neville introduced the Lecture Series, followed by a brief review of Scott W. Nixon’s time at GSO by Dean Bruce Corliss. The speaker was introduced by the STEEP Program Director and GSO professor, Rainer Lohmann. What followed was a fascinating talk by Pál Weihe, MD.  Dr. Weihe, who was born and raised in the Faroe Islands, described his “Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program” that has sites in Greenland and northern Canada in addition to the Faroe Islands. The program initially looked at mercury but expanded to include man-made chemicals called PFASs. Dr. Weihe’s work has included studies looking at the role of PFASs in the effectiveness of childhood vaccinations, PFASs transference during breastfeeding, and the role of mercury in Parkinson’s Disease and inflammatory bowel disease (both diseases have a higher incidence in the Faroe Islands then in other societies). Dr. Weihe and his collaborators examined pregnant women and have followed cohorts of their children since birth, some are now 28. His data showed diet was the cause of high PFASs levels in many cases. His 1989 recommendation was to reduce the amount of pilot whale meat in the traditional Faroe Island diet. In 2008 in his role as Chief Physician for the Faroe Islands he recommended eliminating pilot whale meat consumption.  Follow up studies have documented the reduction of mercury and PCBs in the blood of people who did so. As Dr. Weihe noted, as a scientist he only needs to be responsible for carrying out his research with scientific integrity and reporting the results in the scientific literature, but once he saw the human health effects of PFASs and the evidence of how they might be mitigated through diet changes, he felt obligated to speak out about them. If you missed his talk, you can see it here.

April 10, 2019, Volume 2, Number 2

The author would like to thank Rainer Lohmann, Judith Swift, and Nicole Rohr for taking the time to discuss and explain these subjects. The background information of Scott Nixon was excerpted from an article about him written by the author for a GSO Alumni newsletter in 2012.

This blog post was written by Veronica M. Berounsky, GSO Science Correspondent and Coastal Ecologist. She first arrived at GSO in March of 1979 as a research lab tech. In 1990 she obtained her Ph.D., working on nitrification in Narragansett Bay with the late Scott W. Nixon. She continues to be fascinated by the ecology of coastal ecosystems every day. With this blog she hopes to increase your understanding of the activities and people of GSO and the Narragansett Bay Campus. Please email any comments to her at

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