Waste Erased

Scientist Brian LaPointe wants to tame the sugar barons, corner the cat food market, and solve the sewage problems of the Florida Keys

Brian LaPointe arrived on Big Pine Key in 1982 with a single change of clothes, a Chevy van full of sophisticated aquatic measuring devices, and a newly awarded Ph.D. Specifically, LaPointe had come to South Florida to open a field station for the prestigious Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, a private marine research facility in Fort Pierce founded by Seward Johnson, Sr., heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals fortune. More broadly, LaPointe was coming home. The preceding thirteen years all pointed toward the day he borrowed $14,000 to buy a small lot next to a canal on the five-mile-long island, and personally drew up plans for a modest stilt bungalow.

In 1969 LaPointe concluded a string of adolescent honors (including captain of the varsity swimming team, district president of the paramedical club, and escort to the homecoming queen) at Palm Beach High School, alma mater of such suntanned semiluminaries as Burt Reynolds and George Hamilton. At age nine LaPointe had convinced his mother to move the family to Palm Beach from Greenfield, Massachusetts, after the death of his father and grandfather. The impetus: salt water. While traveling to Cuba in 1959 to pay a last visit to his grandfather -- a successful Spanish dentist and businessman whose estate outside Havana has since been appropriated by the nation's Communist Party -- the young LaPointe spent several weeks swimming and snorkeling on Florida's Gold Coast.

"I was never the same after catching my first glimpses of marine life, seeing the nations of fish, all different colors, and the bizarre life forms," LaPointe recalls. "I felt this frustration of being a stranger in a strange land. It wasn't enough for me to dive down and look around; I wanted to understand what I was looking at. I could describe and explain a lot of terrestrial phenomena -- trees and grass and land animals -- but this was something totally different, more subtly complex."

Upon graduation from Palm Beach High, LaPointe returned north to enter Boston University's marine science program, widely regarded as one of the nation's best. During a summer study program at Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institution near Martha's Vineyard, LaPointe met the man who would become his mentor. John Ryther, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and scientist emeritus at Wood's Hole, was among the first people to construct detailed models of how nutrients make plant matter grow in the oceans.

Ryther's early scientific preoccupation with coastal eutrophication -- the process by which human industrial and agricultural activity pollutes near-shore sea waters with nutrients such as phosphates and nitrogen, leading to unusual plant growths, lowered oxygen levels, and disrupted marine life -- is now seen as pioneer thinking. Today the insidious problem of coastal eutrophication is still eclipsed in the popular mind by such dramatic ecological threats as oil tanker spills and ozone holes, but many marine scientists have come to see it as the number-one problem facing a planet made mostly of water.

In 1974, during a four-year period when LaPointe worked for Ryther after graduating from Boston University, the two men were hired to set up an experimental aquaculture system at the newly established Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution. The system used some of the principles Ryther had seen at work in the open ocean -- tiny marine animals feeding on nutrient-laden waters -- but applied them to a problematic, nutrient-rich liquid found on land, in every town and city: sewage. The crude experimental system attempted to treat wastewater with algae, then fed the algae to various marine organisms.

LaPointe enrolled in the graduate environmental engineering program at University of Florida (Gainesville) in 1977, pursuing a master's degree involving courses such as sanitary engineering and aquatic chemistry. His thesis examined how sunlight and chemicals regulate the growth and biological processes of a seaweed called Ulva fasciata, a plant that invaded Boston Harbor in the 1960s and turned it into a desert, and appears to be doing the same thing today in parts of Florida Bay.

"I got a very solid master's degree, and then I returned to my original interest in coral reefs and the organisms that grow on them," says LaPointe. "I decided to go back to the University of South Florida in Tampa and get my Ph.D. in the physiology of how these organisms respond to nutrients. My strategy was to really specialize in the problem of nutrient pollution of Florida's coastal waters. I was really interested in sewage pollution and eutrophication, and I felt that I'd have a real future in this field in Florida."

For the past decade LaPointe has lived the largely solitary life of a research scientist, existing from grant to grant, spending his days on the water in a twenty-foot Mako or in any number of temporarily rented lab spaces around the Keys. With money from the National Science Foundation he explored the physiology of Sargassum, helping debunk the myth that this bright-yellow seaweed propagates in the Sargasso Sea in the mid-Atlantic (in fact the reverse is true: the seaweed winds up there, then dies and sinks). He continued his studies of coastal eutrophication with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and in another experiment abandoned his own hypothesis that the coastal upwelling of nutrients from the deep ocean floor helps fuel oxygen-hungry algae blooms (it doesn't, at least in the Keys). LaPointe even got to travel to Mustique Island in the Grenadines, where British rock stars and royalty keep vacation homes. He was invited there to try to halt the deterioration of a once-healthy reef chain, an ongoing project. "I have come to the end of my rope several times financially, but it's a wonderful existence," says LaPointe of the last ten years. "I have my freedom, which is what academia is all about."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help