The Inner Harbor’s Best-Kept Secret

by Meg Walburn Viviano

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is a collection of well-known landmarks: The World Trade Center, the USS Constellation and the National Aquarium, to name a few. Each sees a steady flow of visitors, year after year. But one building at the downtown waterfront is a mystery to both tourists and longtime Baltimoreans. 

It’s an imposing structure, with giant, curvy, white canopies that roll like waves above Pier 5, on the east side of the Harbor. High on its brick façade is a logo of overlapping fish. It is not part of the Aquarium, as many assume. It is the University of Maryland’s Institute of Marine & Environmental Technology (IMET), where some 150 students and scientists are conducting groundbreaking marine research. And a lot of that research is focused right here on the Bay.

Among the diverse questions the researchers are trying to answer: 

“Why don’t sharks get cancer?”

“Is a tiny microbe in the Chesapeake Bay the key to a vaccine against salmonella poisoning?”

“How can we synchronize the blue crab’s molting process to harvest soft-shell crabs more easily?”

“Can bacteria from the Inner Harbor help us break down dangerous pollution on a larger scale?”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, IMET invited school kids, families and everyone else who was curious, to come inside and see its research up close. The institute’s first-ever open house looked at first glance like a high-level science fair. Graduate students, post-doctorate students
and full-fledged marine biologists gave show-and-tell presentations of current projects at long tables set up in the lobby. 

Grad student Ammar Hanif displayed glass jars of preserved menhaden at his booth. He’s studying the stomach contents of the menhaden to determine the health of the water column. Yum.

At another booth, Dr. Colleen Burge and technician Natalie Rivlin demonstrated the ability of oysters to filter out pathogens that hurt other marine life, like eelgrass. They showed me a before-and-after of oyster filtration at work: in the morning, oysters had been placed in Bay-green water, and by afternoon, the water had turned perfectly clear.

IMET also opened a restricted-access lab to show research happening in real time. We followed arrows through several doorways marked “Staff Only” to reach the Aquaculture Research Center. I heard one man remark, “This is like the secret James Bond area!” The room hummed with the sound of recirculating tanks— rows and rows of them. A distinct fishy smell was immediately noticeable: a few children held their noses upon entering. 

Inside, graduate student Leah Maurer showed us blue crabs in various stages of life: a vivid blue adult, and tiny specks that she said were three-week-old crabs. I had to take her word for it. Maurer is researching the hormones secreted from crabs’ eyes, which help indicate when the crab will shed its shell. If scientists could get a group of crabs to molt at the same time, Maurer explained, think how much easier it would be to harvest soft-shells in their prime. Maurer will graduate this year, and hopes to go on to a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition to dozens of graduate, doctorate and post-doctorate students, IMET also has high school and college-level interns. One of the institute’s main missions is to help students become the next generation of environmental scientists.

Director Dr. Russell Hill said it’s crucial that IMET’s work continue. That’s because the lab, which relies on federal funding, is focused on four major global challenges: Food supply, energy sources, environmental sustainability, and human health. And those challenges, says Hill, are not going away.

The children of menhaden researcher Ammar Hanif, Assata and Nolan, have set their sights on science careers, having grown up around their father’s research. But Dr. Hill also wants to educate kids without exposure to science about the opportunities available to them. The kids at the open house seemed engaged and eager to learn.

As they left, a grandmother with two elementary-school-aged children exclaimed, “You guys have been way more into this than I expected!”

That makes it a mission accomplished for Dr. Hill.

IMET plans to make its open house an annual event. See more about the institute’s work at
www.umbc.edu/imet

 

Mike Ogar