Feature Stories

Ask Professor X



Subject: Dr. Lisa Campbell, William R. Bryant Oceanography Chair for Teaching, Research and Mentoring Excellence.
Education: Ph.D. Biological Oceanography, Stony Brook University, New York (1985); M.S. Marine Environmental Science, Stony Brook University, New York (1983); B.A. Biology, with honors, University of California at Santa Cruz (1976).
Research interests: Phytoplankton ecology with an emphasis on bloom dynamics, harmful algal blooms and ocean observing systems.

What are phytoplankton?

"Phytoplankton are microscopic plants that drift in the ocean. Between 100,000 and 200,000 species of these tiny organisms create the foundation of the food chain. Phytoplankton produce half of the planet’s oxygen and play a vital role as carbon fixers—converting carbon dioxide to useable compounds for living organisms. But about 100 types of phytoplankton also produce compounds that are toxic to mammals and fish."

What is a harmful algal bloom?

"A harmful algal bloom, or HAB, occurs when certain kinds of phytoplankton grow in abundance and produce toxic effects on marine life. HABs are natural occurrences that resolve over time as toxins filter through shellfish, such as oysters, clams and mussels. During an HAB event, it is not safe to eat shellfish."

Campbell came to Texas A&M in 1996. Growing up near the beach in California, she’s had a lifelong fascination with oceanography. She’s been studying plankton since her undergraduate days. 

After more than four decades of researching phytoplankton, what makes these tiny organisms still so interesting to Campbell? “The diversity is fascinating,” she said. “The more we look, the more we find—new species, new interactions. The perpetual novelty is exciting.” 

Campbell regularly presents at oceanography conferences around the world. She recently returned from conferences in Brazil and China where she discussed her work with TOAST, the Texas Observatory for Algal Succession Time-Series. She has also taught an advanced phytoplankton course for a group of international students in Italy. 

A red tide is another term for an HAB, but it’s a misnomer. HABs come in many colors, depending on the species of phytoplankton involved. Besides, phytoplankton can make shellfish toxic long before the water is red. “You don’t have to see discolored water to have a big problem,” said Campbell. 

While the fishing industry may rage against the loss of income caused by the closure of a fishery due to an HAB, it’s a good move in the long run. “Texas is the third largest oyster producer in the U.S.,” said Campbell. “If Texas oysters develop a reputation for being toxic, no one will buy them.” Campbell’s future research may involve partnering with an economist to determine the economic impact of HABs. 


Cara Collins '08

Executive Development Officer
Central Development Staff