Native Rhode Islander returns home to pursue ocean science

For Matthew Dunn, URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography is the place to be

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NARRAGANSETT, R.I., Oct. 16, 2018 — Contrary to the popular aphorism, you can go home again, and it can be exactly where you want to be.

At least, that is the case for South Kingstown native Matthew Dunn, a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. Dunn grew up barely a mile from URI’s Kingston campus, and after graduating from South Kingstown High School, sought to broaden his perspective beyond his backyard, earning a bachelor’s degree in marine science at the University of Delaware.

For Dunn, 22, returning home is about pursuing a childhood dream to become a marine scientist and to do so in the place where he discovered his love for the ocean. The University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography is where he made that discovery.

“The first beach I ever went to was at Narragansett Bay Campus, because it was safe for little kids. We were a beach family,” Dunn said of his parents and two younger siblings. “And I’ve always had a fascination with sea life, the coastline, waves.”

By the time he was in middle school, Dunn knew he wanted to attend graduate school to become an oceanographer. “GSO is such a renowned school,” he said. “Why go to Hawaii or Florida to study, when URI is one of the best schools for oceanography.”

He believes Rhode Island is lucky to have an esteemed institution that attracts the best students from within and beyond state borders, and offers students advanced degrees that lead to rewarding careers.

A chemical oceanographer, Dunn is studying emerging contaminants — pollutants from industry and manufacturing whose potential dangers were unknown when they were in wide use decades ago. His work is part of the multi-state, federally funded project STEEP, which stands for Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of Polyfluoroalkyl substances. Known as PFASs and widely recognized as toxins, these compounds are released from consumer products, such as carpet and automotive parts. They are found in drinking water, can become airborne and eventually can enter the food web. One of the project directors is Rainer Lohmann, URI professor of oceanography and Dunn’s advisor.

When Dunn was exploring graduate school opportunities, he reached out to Lohmann, who invited him to GSO to see his lab and the research he was conducting. “He thought I’d be a good fit. I applied to GSO specifically to work in his lab,” Dunn said. “I am already actively doing research. I love the way my lab welcomed me right in.”

As an undergraduate, Dunn had focused on water quality issues, such as nitrogen loading and acidification, so the STEEP work offers a fresh direction. “I saw this as a challenge, a new experience and a way to push myself. I am really enjoying it,” he said.

Dunn is conducting validation experiments on chemical detection tools called passive samplers to prove that they will work in the field as intended. The samplers act as sponges, absorbing chemicals in water and indicating what is present and in what concentration. Usually, such tools can only measure one of those factors, Dunn noted, but, once refined, the passive samplers will measure both.

At URI, Dunn appreciates the opportunities to work with students, faculty and experts from other disciplines across the University and beyond. “The interdisciplinary work can only increase my skills and the opportunities for publishing, which in the long run makes you a better scientist, more well-rounded,” he said.

He also believes in sharing his Rhody pride about GSO and, if given the chance, would tell Rhode Islanders: “We live in the Ocean State. The ocean has done something for you, whether you own a seafood restaurant, know a fisherman, are in a business that relies on the marine industry. GSO is actively protecting the oceans and coastal populations. This should be high on everyone’s list.”