Barrett studies shipwrecks for National Geographic

‘I can trace all my work back to Roanoke and the opportunities I had there,’ he says.

As a junior, Michael Barrett '04 began researching the effect of shipwrecks on the environment during a semester abroad in Sydney, Australia. Three years later, he became the youngest person to ever receive a National Geographic grant to continue his work.

Barrett is a marine conservationist and in 2006 received a $10,000 grant from National Geographic's Conservation Trust Fund to study shipwrecks in the Pacific's biologically diverse Chuuk Lagoon, part of the Chuuk State of the Federated States of Micronesia. Some 40 World War II ships lie at the bottom of this lagoon, poised to jettison the oil onboard and wreak havoc on the surrounding environment.

"Chuuk Lagoon was the reverse of Pearl Harbor," explains Barrett, who double majored in environmental policy and political science. "Japan had their ships harbored there, and the U.S. found them and sent planes to destroy them and the bases there."

Barrett went to Chuuk to take a "before" picture of the lagoon. By mapping the coasts of the lagoon now, he and other scientists can determine what would be destroyed in the event of an oil spill. With so many ships in one place, a spill is likely, he says.

His work was published recently in National Geographic, and he hopes the publicity will help raise awareness of the danger these sunken ships pose. Chuuk Lagoon isn't the only area affected. There are nearly 4,000 wrecks across the Pacific, carrying somewhere between 150 million and 1 billion gallons of oil.

Barrett also has publicized the environmental threat of these sunken ships in the film "Scarred Lands and Wounded Lives: The Environmental Impact of War." The film premiered at the Washington, D.C., Environmental Film Festival in 2008 and is being shown around the world.

Originally from Massachusetts, Barrett is now working in Washington, D.C., at the World Wildlife Fund. He says he always wanted to work for the environment, and Roanoke opened doors for him in the field.

"I can trace all my work back to Roanoke and the opportunities I had there," he says.

Through the College's Henry H. Fowler Public Policy Lecture Series and his political science professors, Barrett met two of the world's top scientists: Dr. E.O. Wilson and Dr. Tom Lovejoy. Barrett also was one of the students who worked with Dr. Jon Cawley, associate professor of biology, to build and use a submarine robotic unit to explore the floor of Mountain Lake near Pembroke, Va. This "disappearing lake" is one of about six "cyclical" lakes in the world that drains and refills periodically. Barrett says this project helped him learn a great amount of science "through trial and error."

Dr. Howard Warshawsky, chair of public affairs and one of Barrett's advisors, says he isn't surprised with this Maroon's accomplishments because Barrett always knew what he was interested in and worked hard to achieve it. The idea behind the Fowler program, Warshawsky says, is that "students are exposed to all these different ideas and possibilities. Mike is one who really made the most of them."

Dr. Darwin Jorgensen, chair of the biology department, has followed Barrett's life path with interest and describes him as very goal-directed and self-sufficient. "He knows what he wants to do and pushes forward until he is successful," he says.