LUMCON has council OK to chase big project

Terrebonne Parish is one of 9 coastal communities competing to be headquarters of a national oceanography organization. If chosen, benefits will include a new campus beside Fletcher Technical Community College’s Louisiana Marine and Petroleum Institute in Houma.

The Cocodrie based, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, also known as Lumcon, has finalized its bid to host the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System for 10 years.

Craig McClain, Executive director of LUMCON, announced the plans to the Terrebonne Parish Council last week, asking for their support.

McClain was not disappointed. He left with the council’s blessing.

UNOLS is an organization of academic institutions and national laboratories involved with oceanographic research. These groups joined together to coordinate oceanographic ships’ schedules and research facilities. UNOLS headquarters, which moves every 10 years, currently resides in the University of Rhode Island.

“Whoever hosts the office,” UNOLS executive secretary Jon Alberts said, “It’s not just local, it benefits the whole of the United States.”

Alberts was unable to disclose the names of the other institutions because of the nature of the competition.

LUMCON’s DeFelice Marine Center is a UNOLS member. McClain, gave a detailed presentation to council members.

“It’s never once been on the Gulf of Mexico coast,” McClain said, of the UNOLS headquarters. “We have a very strong probability of actually getting this headquarters to here because of that.”

If Terrebonne is chosen, McClain said, the headquarters would transfer here in May, 2019. The money to operate the headquarters would be paid by a $7.5 million grant every five years.

McClain said, LUMCON wishes to set up a satellite facility on this campus as well.

“Our vision is actually to turn this into a new Houma marine education campus,” said McClain. “It would focus on workforce retraining and workforce development.”

McClain said offshore oil, ship building, and coastal restoration would be among the topics being taught and studied.

LUMCON, McClain said, has a good record with UNOLS from their work with the Pelican, as well as many LUMCON employees serving on UNOLS councils.

The Pelican is the flagship research vessel of LUMCON’s fleet. It is capable of housing 14 scientists for up to 3 weeks for operations such as wet and dry lab use, scientific diving, trawling, large box-core sampling, piston cores, shallow seismic surveys, ROV operations, buoy deployment and recovery, and hydrographic casts with CTD-rosette systems, according to LUMCON’s website.

LUMCON is also putting forth a proposal, in April, for a new “regional class” research vessel. The $80 million vessel would be close to 300-feet, or twice the size of the Pelican, said McClain.

McClain said that this money would come from the National Science Foundation.

LUMCON serves as the marine lab for every state and private college and university in Louisiana, “There’s only one marine lab in Louisiana and it’s LUMCON, and so we have lots of busy researchers who come to LUMCON, upwards of several hundred a year, and bring their entire labs for research,” said McClain.

Along with research and training, LUMCON serves as a catalyst for scientific inquiry.

Councilman Scott Dryden expressed interest in the project.

“I’m excited for selfish reasons. My students actually went on a field trip there today,” said Dryden, who is the principal of Terrebonne High School. “That being closer to us would help us maximize instructional time so they’re not on the bus all day long, ‘cause it’s pretty far away now.”

The location of LUMCON was a strategic choice to allow access to the wetland areas, said McClain. This choice however came with an unfortunate side affect of inconvenient access for the community. With this plan LUMCON intends to have educational facilities in Houma to resolve this issue.

“A lot of people in Houma don’t even know about LUMCON even though we’re not that far away,” McClain said. “Also, we have a lot of schools who can’t afford, or because of the time, make it all the way down to Cocodrie.”

He recalled how as an undergrad he was in general biology, and a summer course at LUMCON shifted his future to focus on marine biology. This influence was so strong that he eventually moved from being a faculty member at Duke University to executive director of LUMCON.

“Our whole educational mission, both from K all the way up to graduate level, PhD training, is that we try not to offer, we don’t offer, courses or experiences that would look like what you would get in a classroom,” said McClain. “That’s not the point of LUMCON.”

McClain said LUMCON works actively to try to bring students these experiences. While the Houma site would not replace the field experience that could be found in a marine lab, it would open LUMCON up to a broader audience, McClain said.

“We have tried to actively find funding, through grants or through donations and things like that, that allow us to actually bring students to the marine lab,” he said. “For example, we got a small grant to actually bring high school students from a lower social economic district to LUMCON for 3 days in a row to build little mini remote operated vehicles, and so I want to find more opportunities like that.”