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Chemistry Major Directing Marine Biology Laboratory

Dr. Joseph Merkel at work in the marine laboratory.

By James Dewsnap, Charleston Evening Post Staff Writer, February 27, 1961

For Local College

Dr. Joseph R. Merkel

Dr. Joseph R. Merkel, associate professor of biology at the College of Charleston and director of the school’s marine biology laboratory at Fort Johnson, calls himself “poor publicity for a biology department because I majored in chemistry.”

However Dr. Merkel has devoted all of his time and effort to the study and students of biology ever since his undergraduate days.

Aside from his professorial duties, Dr. Merkel is engaged in marine bacteriological research under two grants from the National Science Foundation and one from the Office of Naval Research.

Dr. Merkel explained that these grants are for “basic research.”

“The granting agencies don’t know whether anything utilizable will come of it or not,” he said. “It is just a search for knowledge with no and’s, if’s or but’s.”

Working with the biologist on his many projects are students from the college.

“What I attempt to do,” Dr. Merkel said, “is to isolate a small phase of each problem and give it to the student to work on. The student does the actual research and helps in the interpretation of the results. As he gets deeper into the problem, he is better able to interpret his findings. Practice of this type will be helpful to the student in graduate school.”

Under the National Science Foundation grants, Dr. Merkel and the students are involved in research of photochemical reactions of vitamin B2 or riboflavin. “I have been involved with this problem for seven years,” said Dr. Merkel, explaining that he hasn’t yet proven that the test tube reactions will function in a living system. “But we have good indications,’ he added.

Dr. Merkel said he hoped his findings in this research would help us to understand biological reactions effected by light, such as photosynthesis and vision.

For The Office of Naval Research, the biologist is studying the effects of marine bacteriology on the decomposition of carotenoids, the plant pigments which give leaves their coloration in the fall.

The Navy also is supporting a portion of Dr. Merkel’s research on the relationship between the bacteria in the gut of an animal and the animal’s ability to digest wood.

Dr. Merkel’s investigations and teaching duties do not end with the school year. He remains busy at the laboratory throughout the summer. Using funds from the National Science Foundation, he will have three students working with him full time this summer. The information the students obtain through their own research will be placed in a literature survey of their project which will be used as a basis for a scientific thesis.

Although he does not have student assistance, Dr. Merkel does much of the laboratory work on his own. He admitted, regretfully, that he is pretty much of a one man staff.

“My biggest difficulty is to get people trained in microbiology to come into this area,’ Dr. Merkel said. “At the moment I have the money to pay them, but I can’t find people to fill the positions.”

Dr. Merkel explained that there is no place in South Carolina that turns out microbiologists. “The only way I can get somebody is to is to find someone who is willing to pioneer, like I am,” he continued.

Dr. Merkel became director of the marine biology laboratory in 1955. “At that time,” he said “there wasn’t much out here except the buildings.”

Today the college’s Fort Johnson facilities include a large laboratory used for Dr. Merkel’s lectures and by undergraduates engaged in research projects. There also are three small laboratories used by the staff and by visiting investigators.

Also housed in the old hospital building of the former quarantine station are a transfer room for handling bacterial cultures, an instrument room and a preparation kitchen.

The mess hall at the old station has been converted into a dormitory for summer students and visiting investigators.

Dr. Merkel graduated from Moravian College, received his M.A. degree from Purdue University and his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. He taught at Moravian College, Purdue and Rutgers University before coming to the College of Charleston.