NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. – Ed Loomis volunteers at the Marine Discovery Center (MDC) in New Smyrna Beach at least once a week. You can find him doing any number of things on the 22-acre property. But it’s his contribution to the “citizen science” program that makes him stand out.
“I just love the outdoors,” Loomis said. “I love hiking, I love camping. I just love everything about nature. I’ve been that way since I was 11 years old. Now I’m 79,” he said with a laugh.
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Loomis retired after nearly 38 years as a computer scientist at the NSA. Today he’s outdoors as much as possible.
The Citizen Science program lets everyday people take part in university and FWC research. Loomis and others collect samples that help researchers broaden their sample set and collect for longer periods of time.
“We do get more boots on the ground, and quite literally in the mud,” said MDC Conservation Science Coordinator Tess Sailor-Tynes.
Once a month Loomis wades out into the Indian River Lagoon salt marsh on the MDC property. He dips a one-liter bottle into the dark, brackish water, pulls it up above the surface and screws the cap on it.
“I’m looking for microplastics,” he said. “This is the sample we’ll be analyzing.”
Sailor-Tynes says Loomis gets results because of his commitment to the MDC and their various projects.
“He’s one of our fabulous volunteers who has a hand in a lot of our shoreline restoration work, as well as our citizen science programs like microplastics and the horseshoe crab watch,” Sailor-Tynes said. “He is getting results.”
The MDC partners with The University of Florida, University of Central Florida and FWC to provide volunteers for their studies.
“The whole idea behind citizen science is that we can have people from the public getting involved at a scientific level without having to go through the labs or the master’s programs,” Sailor-Tynes said. “This allows them to get out into the Indian River Lagoon, take a water collection sample.”
Loomis is collecting samples to count the number of microplastics in each 1-liter draw.
Microplastics are small particle remnants from larger plastic items that have broken down. The impact on animals and humans is still being studied.
He collects from locations in the northern Indian River Lagoon.
“We do find that there’s a large concentration of those fibers, most of which you’re not going to see with the naked eye,” Sailor-Tynes said. “So although you may see the larger plastics that are floating in the water, this is a concern that that not a lot of people consider because we can’t see them. And so that’s kind of what we’re hoping to accomplish is just provide a general understanding of what we’re seeing.”
To help with that understanding, Loomis brings his samples back to the learning lab and filters the marsh water through a special filter. He then counts the number of microplastics he sees under a microscope.
“Normally I have a book and I read,” Loomis said. “It’s a slow process.”
When all the water is finally filtered, Loomis puts the filter under his microscope to see what he’s caught.
“Last year I found 50 in one liter,” Loomis recalled.
Today’s sample was microplastic-free. A good sign, but Loomis will be back next month to try again.
“It keeps me young,” Loomis said. “It’s wonderful working with young people like Tess. Everybody that I’ve worked with here at Marine Discovery Center are just fantastic.”
Sailor-Tynes will tell you Loomis and all the others who volunteer are fantastic too.
“Our conservation work is completely dependent on the outpouring of love that we get from our volunteers,” Sailor-Tynes said. “Volunteers, especially ones like Ed, are completely invaluable.”
There are many opportunities for citizen science at MDC, including microplastics testing and analysis, wildlife and plant surveys, water quality testing, and more.
Opportunities often vary seasonally and are dependent on available grant funding and the needs of organizational partners.