Savannah River Ecology Laboratory

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The Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) is a research unit of the University of Georgia, located at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Savannah River Site (SRS) in Aiken, South Carolina. SREL is supported by federal, state, industry and foundation funding. Since the laboratory's founding in 1951 by Dr. Eugene Odum of the University of Georgia, a pioneer of modern ecology, SREL scientists have conducted long-term environmental studies on the SRS nuclear facility.

SREL offers short and long-term educational and research opportunities in ecology and environmental sciences for graduate and undergraduate students. A wide variety of natural habitat types on the SRS, along with the presence of nuclear and industrial facilities, provides students an exceptional opportunity to study natural and disturbed ecological systems in the same region. Combined with a modern laboratory and field facilities and a diverse natural flora and fauna, SREL offers opportunities for students to develop ecological expertise and for visiting investigators to conduct research.


1951: The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) asked the University of Georgia to submit a proposal to conduct ecological research at Savannah River Plant (SRP, later renamed SRS). Dr. Eugene Odum, headed the effort, and with $11,934 in funding for the first year, a small but eager group began work three days after the budget was approved. Odum and a group of scientists, many of whom volunteered their time and knowledge, focused on two areas of research: Inventory of conspicuous features of the environment of the site and basic, long-term ecological research. 1955: The University of Georgia hired Dr. Robert Norris as the first ecologist to conduct full-time research at the Savannah River Plant. Norris later won the Eminent Ecologist Award given annually by the Ecological Society of America.

1955-1961: SREL researchers concentrated on radiation ecology studies, publishing about 30 scientific papers based on this research.

1961: The AEC established a permanent ecology laboratory on the site; two Army barracks were converted into laboratory space for the scientists. The next year, the University of Georgia hired a full-time staff with doctoral degrees to expand the research effort. [Dr. Frank B. Golley] became the first director of the Laboratory, then known as the Laboratory of Radiation Ecology. In the mid 1960s the University of Georgia renamed the Laboratory the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, reflecting the broad spectrum of ecological studies carried out on the site. Technical papers published by the group reached 100.

1967: The University of Georgia appointed Dr. Robert J. Beyers director of the laboratory. Over the next six years, researchers published more than 200 scientific papers and the operating budget almost doubled.

1973: Dr. Michael H. Smith became director of SREL and the research expanded through a prime contract with the Atomic Energy Commission. SREL began a thermal ecology program to investigate the ecological effects of hot water from the SRS reactors on the fauna and flora of streams, ponds and swamps on the site. Researchers also expanded studies of mineral cycling and the fate and effects of containments on the environment. The first SREL symposium in 1974 was organized by Drs. J. Whitfield Gibbons and Rebecca R. Sharitz and brought most U.S. researchers who concentrated on thermal biology together for the first time, establishing the field of thermal ecology. The SREL Symposium Series focused on numerous other ecological fields of interest including Mineral Cycling and Biogeochemical Ecology.

1974: SREL participated in a national research program on the fate and behavior of transuranic elements in agriculture and natural ecosystems, funded by ERDA (DOE) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

1977: SREL moved into its present 30,000-square-foot (2,800 m2) building near the DOE Administration Area. Associated with this facility are numerous outdoor enclosures for conducting field observations and metapopulation studies on a variety of animals and plants. Two laboratories within the facility focus on genetic studies.

1980s: SREL restructured from numerous and diverse research programs into three research divisions: biogeochemical ecology, wildlife ecology and toxicology and wetlands ecology.

1991: SREL developed the Division of Environmental Outreach and Education, with the guidance of Dr. J. Whitfield Gibbons, to formalize SREL's commitment to educate the general public as well as the scientific community. The Outreach staff visits schools, holds teacher workshops, and gives talks to the general public. As part of Outreach, a graduate research participation program was developed to provide qualified graduate students support while conducting full-time thesis or dissertation research on the SRS. Graduate students from more than 50 U.S. universities have participated in the program.

1994-1996: The UGA-SREL Conference Center opens as an environmental education facility and a place for scientific meetings. Also, Georgia Lottery funds provide sophisticated equipment for environmental study at the main laboratory. SREL goes through a period of building expansion adding a new computer laboratory, an animal holding facility, a molecular genetics laboratory, analytical instruments laboratory and a distance learning facility, increasing the size of the main laboratory to 45,000 square feet (4,200 m2).

1996: SREL goes from a Government Owned Contractor Operated (GOCO) contract with DOE to a new cooperative agreement.

1998-1999: The Radioecology Laboratory in Chernobyl, Ukraine opens under the directorship of SREL. Dr. Paul Bertsch becomes SREL's director as Dr. Michael Smith retires as director. SREL also had a leading role in establishing Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC), the only national/international organization to address the conservation of both reptiles and amphibians. An SREL publication, Snakes of Georgia and South Carolina, goes into three printings and more than 30,000 issues are distributed. The global decline of reptiles receives worldwide recognition in 1999 led by an SREL initiative in conjunction with PARC.

2000: SREL is given a Guinness World Records plaque for having the longest, daily-monitored wetland study in the world for its reptile and amphibian research at Rainbow Bay.

2001: The 2,500th peer-reviewed paper by an SREL author was published, continuing the tradition of productivity and academic excellence set early in SREL's history. SREL renews its cooperative agreement with DOE for $53 million for a combined total over ten years of approximately $115 million.

2005: The fate of SREL was threatened when funding of the laboratory was reduced by 40% in the DOE budget. A restructuring occurred including a downsizing in the number of employees.[1]

2007: SREL again faced a loss of funding from DOE. Dr. Paul Bertsch resigned as Dr. Carl Bergmann took over as co-director along with Dr. Carl Strojan. SREL was forced to consider closing its doors, however funding from a diversity of other sources was able to keep the lab open, but with substantial loss of budget and personnel. Dr. Strojan retired in the summer of 2007, and Dr. Bergmann became the SREL director.

2008: SREL continues to diversify its funding with grants from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

2011: DOE renews its cooperative agreement with SREL for another 5 years

2012: SREL hires Dr. Gene Rhodes as new director.[2] DOE Savannah River Field Office provides funding to SREL through the Cooperative Agreement at ~ 1 million dollars per year for the first time in 5 years. The new director hires a new assistant director for facilities and budget, Chris McBride. SREL begins the process of rebuilding the laboratory, refocusing available resources to increase graduate student numbers and to updating facilities and equipment to increase research capacity.

2013: SREL begins to rebuild critical scientific infrastructure and personnel and begins to emphasize the need to increase competition for external funding from all sources. SREL increases its graduate student cohort from 1 to 15 and reestablishes its tradition of graduate education. SREL partners with the University of South Carolina – Aiken to create a cohort of 6 undergraduate students for summer experiential learning in the field of radioecology. DOE Savannah River Field Office increases funding to SREL through the Cooperative Agreement to 2 million dollars per year. SREL rejoins the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers and SREL faculty increase participation in undergraduate and graduate instruction by three additional courses.

2014: SREL grows to approximately 90 faculty, staff and students and reaches an annual budget from all sources of ~ 5 million dollars, of which 1 million is from sources external to the Savannah River Site. SREL's graduate student cohort grows to 25 students and SREL's radioecology summer internship program hosts another 6 undergraduates. SREL begins to refurbish its facilities after over a decade of deferred maintenance. SREL adds one new research scientist to the faculty and 5 new postdocs. SREL faculty publish 46 peer-reviewed articles and SREL's outreach program reaches over 35,000 individuals in the local community. SREL researchers expand external funding via grants from the US Department of Agriculture, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration.

2015: SREL grows to 100 faculty, staff and students and reaches an annual budget from all sources of ~7 million dollars, of which 1.5 million is from sources external to the Savannah River Site. SREL's graduate cohort remains at 25 students. SREL is successful at establishing the first NSF funded Research Experience for Undergraduates Program in Radioecology in the US and hosts 13 undergraduates for its summer experiential learning program in radioecology at SREL.[3] SREL adds two new tenure track faculty lines stationed on the Savannah River Site and three new tenure track faculty stationed on the main campus as part of joint hires with the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia. SREL researchers publish 55 peer-reviewed articles and SREL's outreach program reaches 38,000 individuals in the local community. SREL steps up its emphasis on restoring laboratory infrastructure and analytical equipment to increase research capacity with assistance from the Department of Energy.

2016: SREL grows to 108 faculty, staff and students and reaches an annual budget from all sources of ~8 million dollars, of which 2 million is from sources external to the Savannah River Site. SREL's graduate cohort grows to 36 students and SREL's NSF-funded undergraduate experiential learning program hosts 13 students. SREL adds one additional tenure track faculty member and one additional research scientist. SREL researchers publish 75 peer-reviewed research articles and SREL's outreach program reaches 39,000 individuals in the local community. SREL hires a new outreach program manager, P.J. Perea,[4] to advance SREL's outreach programs in new directions. SREL also is funded by the DOE to build a new outreach program focused on education and outreach activities on the topic of radionuclides in the environment and radiological monitoring programs. SREL completes the renovation of 16 laboratories and replaces most of the aging HVAC infrastructure associated with its main laboratories and greenhouses.

2017: Former SREL Director Michael H. Smith passed away on November 15, 2017, at the age of 79. Big Mike, as he was known, was recognized internationally as an expert on population genetics, radioactivity in the environment, and ecology. He was known throughout the world for his knowledge of the effects of radiation on the ecosystem and was an advisor during the Chernobyl nuclear reactor failure. During his quarter-century as the director of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, he and his outstanding team of scholars guided the effort into a premier research institute. He was an author of more than 350 scientific publications, and mentored dozens of Ph.D. and Master's students who valued his guidance and commitment. Dr. Michael H. Smith was a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, yet he was proudest of his Hart Merriam "Buffalo" Award for outstanding research contributions from the American Society of Mammalogy, in which he was a lifetime member.[5]


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