USCB professor named 'Breakthrough Star' for his coastal research

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comMarch 29, 2013 

In this file photo, University of South Carolina Beaufort assistant professor Eric Montie listens to the sounds of the May River in Bluffton. Montie was named a 2013 Breakthrough Star by the University of South Carolina.

A chorus of lovemaking takes place at night in the May River, and University of South Carolina Beaufort assistant professor Eric Montie and his students are there to eavesdrop.

For the past two and a half years, Montie has had his ear to the water, studying fish and dolphin communication in local estuaries.

Montie and his students have submerged acoustic recorders at biological hot spots in the water that also record conditions, including salinity and temperature.

With dolphins, Montie listens for vocalizations and echo-location clicks that help the animals find food. He also records noises made by red drum, black drum and spotted sea trout -- an important fishery and a favorite meal for dolphins and humans alike.

Such work earned Montie -- hired at USCB in January 2011 with a grant designed to expand biomedical and ecological research -- distinction as a 2013 Breakthrough Star by the University of South Carolina system. He was one of only 15 to be selected from a faculty of more than 2,000 this year.

He was nominated by USCB biology professor and natural sciences department chairman Charles H. Keit.

"He has a very impressive record of productivity, publishing six papers and submitting 10 grants (three of which have been awarded and three pending)," Keith said. "... He has increased USCB's visibility and stature across the state and nation, and enormously benefited our students to have exposure to his coastal research."

Montie and his students listen in on local fish populations, including spotted sea trout, which possess a sonic muscle that beats against their swim bladder to attract mates -- much like frogs croaking. Listening for where the fish spawn may give researchers a clue about their life cycles, including population bursts, Montie said.

He and students are also researching the effects of pollutants on brain development and hearing loss in fish and dolphins.

"They are the canary in the coal mine" when it comes to toxins in the water, Montie said. "We eat the same fish, so we're exposed to the same chemicals. What happens to a dolphin may eventually happen to people."

Michael Powell, 22, began working with Montie as an undergraduate student and now helps him as a research technician.

"When he came here and brought his research, it allowed me to explore my interests and gave me some new opportunities I hadn't had before," including publishing research, Powell said.

Powell was published in the October edition of NeuroToxicology, a bimonthly international journal, for studying endocrine disruption and brain development in rats.

A range of substances, both natural and manmade, are thought to cause endocrine disruption, including pharmaceuticals, pesticides and other compounds. The chemicals interfere with the body's hormones, which can lead to adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife.

Powell injected the rats with a pharmaceutical agent used to treat an autoimmune disease known to interfere with thyroid function. He then obtained MRI images of the rats' brains and found the agent slowed brain development.

"It had been seen through other methods, but it was the first time shown through MRI," Powell said.

Now, he and Montie are replicating the research in fish -- which are cheaper and easier to work with -- to see how alterations in brain structure are driven by pollutants in the water.

Montie will be honored at an awards dinner April 30 at the Capital City Club in Columbia, home of USC's flagship campus.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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