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Scientific (and Surfing) Safari

On and off the job, a MIT/WHOI graduate student displays his passion for the ocean

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Eric Montie has a great tan, photos of huge waves taped above his computer, and a penchant for grabbing his short board and racing to the beach at a moment’s notice. He is—undeniably—a surfer dude.

But watch him spend hours at a magnetic resonance imaging machine to photograph a dolphin’s skull, then carefully extract its brain to detect the presence of chemical contaminants. It’s evident that his interest in the ocean runs much deeper than finding the gnarliest wave.

As a graduate student in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program, Montie is working to develop methods to better understand if toxic chemicals found in the marine environment can affect brain development in dolphins. Among the chemicals Montie is exploring are flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which were widely used in furniture, foam, plastics, and computers before some mixtures were banned in 2004.

PBDEs are chemical cousins of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), industrial chemicals that were banned in the 1970s because they harmed animal life. The chemicals take decades to break down in nature, and they accumulate up the food chain in body fat.

Detecting and measuring these chemicals in the oceans is difficult, but scientists do know that once the chemicals get into the environment, they disperse widely. They show up in the Atlantic white-sided and common dolphins that Montie studies, as well as in California tern eggs and Arctic polar bears.

In lab experiments with rodents, scientists have learned that the chemicals can interfere with neurological function and the thyroid hormone system, with potential harm ranging from cognitive defects to hearing loss.

“Picture a deaf, dumb dolphin trying to find food,” Montie said.

Contaminants in dolphin brains
Montie learned to surf in Rhode Island, not far from his Connecticut home. As his bottom-turns, cutbacks, and floaters improved, so did his knowledge of and interest in ocean currents, winds, and the activities of marine mammals. During walks on the beach, Eric’s father Bill Montie recalls fielding “a million questions from Eric” about the dead crabs and fish they found.

“He wanted to know, ‘Were they poisoned? Didn’t they eat the right food?’ ” Bill Montie said.

For his research at WHOI, Montie is asking similar questions about marine mammals. Unlike laboratory mice, however, dolphin specimens aren’t as easy to get, and, more importantly, they are a protected species, so no research can be conducted on them without permits. Over the years, Montie—with assistance from the Cape Cod Stranding Network—has obtained samples from dolphins that died or were euthanized after stranding on beaches in Massachusetts.

In the past, scientists had examined the mammal’s brain as a whole to determine what contaminants accumulate in it, said Chris Reddy, a chemist at WHOI who hosted Montie in his lab this summer. Montie is taking that research a step further by studying whether contaminants accumulate in and affect specific brain regions—those that depend on thyroid hormones for maturation, such as the cerebellum, corpus callosum, and hippocampus.

So far, in three dolphins, Montie has performed chemical analyses on gray matter in the  cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for balance and movement. Preliminary results have shown higher than expected levels of PBDEs.

“Now that we know PBDEs can accumulate in dolphins’ brains, we would like to understand what this means for their health,” he said. “There’s a potential that these chemicals could have negative effects. Right now, we just don’t have enough baseline information on dolphin brains, so perhaps our research will shed some light.”

A fateful trip out West
Surfing, Montie said, has provided balance during intense months in the lab, and his lab mates often check in with him when looking for the latest information on coastal weather. “He’s the guy who has the handle on what’s happening with currents, where the winds are blowing,” said Regina Campbell-Malone, a graduate student in biology.

His advisor Mark Hahn, a senior scientist and toxicologist at WHOI, doesn’t blink when Montie occasionally disappears from the lab at, say, noon on a Tuesday. He knows that waves can be a siren call to the New England surfer in autumn, when beaches in Massachusetts and Rhode Island empty of tourists, Atlantic waters hover just below 70 degrees, and southern hurricanes kick up northern swells.

“I don’t mind when he dashes out,” Hahn said, “because the rest of the time he’s in here working his tail off.”

Montie had planned to apply to medical school following his undergraduate degree in zoology in 1993 at the University of Rhode Island. That changed after he borrowed his father’s white van and drove 12,000 miles through two dozen national parks. For three months, he and two friends, subsisting on cornflakes and spaghetti, hiked and camped in parks from Missouri to Washington.

Mesmerized by the sweep of mountains, rivers, and grasslands so unlike the small states and crowded cities of the East Coast, Montie fell hard for the West’s unspoiled beauty. After returning that fall, he shelved his medical school applications. “That big dose of open space and wild land made me realize I wanted to understand the natural environment,” he said.

Six months after the trip west, Montie landed an internship at an Environmental Protection Agency research lab in Rhode Island studying how toxic metals affect two species of shrimp. The volunteer position helped him focus his scientific interest in environmental toxicology, and in 1995 spurred him to graduate school at Clemson University in South Carolina, where he dissected and analyzed the brains of deer mice to learn how the chemical dieldrin alters their ability to adapt to the cold.

Ultimately, though, the ocean drew him back. “I just couldn’t get away from surfing,” he said.

Eric Montie’s research is supported by the WHOI Ocean Life Institute, the WHOI Academic Programs Office, Environmental Protection Agency STAR Fellowship Program, Office of Naval Research, National Woman’s Farm and Garden Association, Quebec-Labrador Foundation/Atlantic Center for the Environment, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Shields MRI of Cape Cod. Dana Hartley with the National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Region, provided the authorization letter allowing for the possession of marine mammal parts.

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