In September 1969, crabs scuttled for cover as the waves lapping at Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, left behind a toxic blanket of number 2 fuel oil. It clung to the rocks and saturated the sands as the hull of the Florida, a barge that had run aground during a storm, released an estimated 700,000 liters of the noxious goo to coat the shoreline of the once pristine marshes.
Most creatures could not withstand the heavy pollution, and the waterfront soon became nearly still. A scientific survey conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) eight days later found that 95 percent of the wildlife at the bottom of the bay was either dead or dying.
But though the spill had disastrous ecological consequences, its timing would prove fortuitous for Kathryn A. Burns, who was just finishing her undergraduate degree in biochemistry at Michigan State University and was offered a spot in one of the first classes of the MIT–WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography. Burns arrived in Woods Hole in the summer of 1970, her new husband and their bright yellow eight-foot dinghy in tow. (They’d ignored parental advice to buy a stove or refrigerator with their wedding gift money, using it instead to purchase the dinghy, which they’d named Chicken.)
That first summer, Burns visited the oil-coated salt marsh of Buzzards Bay with another student, who was studying the local fiddler crabs. Burns noticed that the minnows were able to survive in the heavily oiled waters and theorized that these fish must have a unique way to process the pollution. As animals began to reclaim their habitats, she observed that while the marsh minnows were flourishing in the still-oily waters with little oil in their tissues, the fiddler crabs, whose bodies were saturated with oil, were struggling, digging shallower-than-usual holes in the sand.
“I thought I could make a unique contribution by assessing the ability—or not—to metabolize and excrete the contamination,” Burns says. For the next five years, she studied the critters and sands of the slowly recovering marshlands, working to unveil exactly how the ecosystem recuperated.
She found that her theory was right: the marsh minnows could process the toxins from the oil up to 100 times faster than the fiddler crabs. The key to the difference was the level of mixed-function oxidases (MFOs), substances that break down oil, in each species’ body. While fiddler crabs’ MFO levels stayed the same throughout Burns’s study, marsh minnows were able to respond to the pollution and produce more.
Burns’s discovery explained why the toxin levels in the fiddler crabs stayed the same throughout her five-year study, while just four years after the spill, the toxins in the minnows fell to the same level as that of minnows living in a pristine environment. She submitted these results and other observations on the recovery of the bay in her 1975 doctoral thesis, “Distribution of Hydrocarbons in a Salt Marsh Ecosystem After an Oil Spill and Physical Changes in Marsh Animals from the Polluted Environment.”
“I managed to write my thesis and defend it before my classmates [did],” says Burns, whose MIT/WHOI joint program cohort was the first to include women. “So by accident, really, I was the first woman graduate.” But though Burns felt camaraderie in the joint program, she couldn’t escape the fact that she was forging a career in a male-dominated profession. She would have to sit through debates on whether or not women should be allowed on certain vessels. And a secretary at the Australian embassy, unable to believe that she had gotten a job at the Marine Chemistry Unit in Melbourne, hung up on her as she tried to arrange visas.
“I had to face sexism my entire career, and I always knew I had to be better than the men to get recognition,” Burns says. But she’s pleased that her students aren’t required to prove themselves over and over—and points out that today, many students in the MIT/WHOI program are women.
After graduating, Burns spent most of her career as a senior principal research scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, where she continued to study oil spills, developing best practices for both immediate response and long-term cleanup efforts. Now officially retired, she continues to serve as an adjunct scientist at TropWATER at James Cook University in Australia.
While Burns’s career took her across the globe, her work continued to have an impact in Buzzards Bay—as did some of the oil itself. In 2000 a new generation of researchers revived the research that she and her colleagues had begun. One of those investigators, Helen White, PhD ’06, was also a student in the MIT/WHOI joint program, studying chemical oceanography. She joined the WHOI research group led by Christopher Reddy, a senior scientist at the institution, to investigate what had happened to the oil since the ’70s.
“We were constantly trying to say, ‘What does the oil look like today, and how does that compare to the data that was collected previously?’” says White. They found that though most of the oil had disappeared, a small fraction remained in one small part of the marsh, largely unchanged from when Burns had walked the shores. And when researchers checked the marsh again this summer, they still found oil. “You had a perfect storm of a location where oil could last for a long time in the environment,” says Reddy. This discovery gave researchers insights into the types of habitats that can hold onto oil for decades, and therefore which habitats to prioritize when dealing with a spill.
The 1969 spill changed the course of Burns’s career, and she, in turn, changed the course of oil spill research done in Buzzards Bay and on many oil spills that have happened since, including the Deepwater Horizon spill. “Many of the metrics, many of the approaches, and many other ways in which we think about oil spills in the environment came out of Kathy’s PhD thesis and what she did with her advisors,” says Reddy.