Big science is a Maryland ‘sweet spot’

By Donald C. Fry

Here’s a quick Inner Harbor quiz for you.

What Pratt Street institution houses a multitude of fish and recently hosted a lecture by ocean explorer Jean-Michael Cousteau, son of the famed sea pioneer Jacques Cousteau?

Here’s a hint: it isn’t the National Aquarium, though that would be a good guess. But it’s farther east on Pratt Street from the Inner Harbor’s iconic tourist attraction.

It’s the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET), a part of the University System of Maryland. It is home to one of the largest groups of marine research scientists in the world.

Housed in the building with an exterior resembling a crab shell at 701 E. Pratt Street formerly known as the Columbus Center, IMET scientists are performing groundbreaking work on aquaculture. It includes, among other things, developing sustainable approaches for the farming of commercially important finfish and shellfish – a seafood supply that is challenged by their continuous decline in the oceans and coastal waters of the world.

The work at IMET, which draws on the use of aquaculture and genomics in developing today’s most innovative and environmentally sustainable marine technologies, prompted an October 9 visit from Jean-Michael Cousteau, who delivered a presentation about addressing the magnitude of challenges facing our oceans and fisheries.

IMET is a joint research institute of the University System of Maryland and a division of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). In addition to other divisions of UMCES, major collaborators with IMET are the University of Maryland Baltimore (UMB) and the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).

This collaborative structure is a “huge strength,” IMET director Dr. Russell Hill said. The facility “is a great example of productive collaboration between institutions. IMET’s collaborations extend further to include interactions with many leading research institutions nationally and internationally.”

IMET scientists have developed a fully-contained, land-based aquaculture technology that enables the production of high-value marine fish without environmental impact.

In addition to working on sustainable aquaculture models for Chesapeake blue crabs and striped bass, as well as European sea bass and popular Mediterranean sources of seafood, IMET’s Aquaculture Research Center, headed by Dr. Yoni Zohar, has launched new research on blue fin tuna, a species that is highly exploited commercially.

This and other work on the frontier of the sea and science plays out in 18,000 square-feet of 5,000-gallon fish tanks in IMET’s basement. It’s not the National Aquarium, but it is critically important to the health of the world’s oceans and to the global seafood supply for future generations.

The intellectual property associated with the development of these innovative aquaculture systems has been licensed to the local start-up company Maryland Sustainable Mariculture, which plans to develop a large-scale marine aquaculture operation in a warehouse in Baltimore City and to eventually expand nationally and internationally.

Other research from IMET is also being commercialized. “Our mission includes commercialization of outstanding fundamental research in order to have a real world impact and help with economic development in Maryland,” Dr. Hill said. IMET researchers work with Hytek-Bio, a Baltimore-based company focused on biofuel production and carbon dioxide capture.

Sediment Solution, LLC, a small company recently spun out of UMBC, is also engaged with IMET researchers focused on the bioremediation of sites contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

A new collaboration was recently announced between IMET researchers and Fina Biosolutions LLC, a Maryland-based company, to devise new ways to manufacture components used in vaccines.

IMET serves to illustrate, as Hill points out, “effective collaboration makes for great science.”

The work at IMET is a compelling part of a Central Maryland innovation corridor that is a hotbed of percolating science.

From the University of Maryland Baltimore, UMBC and the University System of Maryland’s 12 institutions, to John Hopkins University and its Applied Physics lab in Howard County, and from Aberdeen to Ft. Meade, there is no denying science is big in our region – very big.

It’s a major business development sweet spot here.

The research that percolates throughout the Baltimore region and in Maryland is a fundamental defining element that places Maryland high on national rankings for its potential to thrive in the so-called “new economy.”

Scientists themselves tend to have low-key profiles beyond their institutions and academic circles.

That’s why it’s critically important for public policymakers and business advocates in Maryland to aggressively promote our valuable science and technology resources, nurture their development and convert what is an almost boundless potential for innovation into private-sector business growth.

Editor’s note: This commentary is posted on Center Maryland.