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Tammi Richardson in her lab

Tammi Richardson honored with 2024 SEC Faculty Achievement Award

As a long-time professor and current chair of University of South Carolina’s largest department, biological sciences, it might be tempting to assume that Tammi Richardson’s path to academia followed a traditional trajectory. But Richardson’s life and work experiences are anything but conventional, ranging from stints in retail to conducting medical research and starting an MBA.

In the end, though, her career exploration led her straight back to her undergraduate studies in biology.

During her college years in Canada, Richardson threw herself into track and cross-country, but as she pursued a biology degree with an eye toward the medical field, her marine biology coursework unexpectedly sparked her passion. Awed by microscopic slides of the water samples she collected during a field exercise, Richardson developed a deep interest in the environmental factors impacting growth of phytoplankton — single-celled, water-dwelling creatures whose process of absorbing carbon dioxide in photosynthesis is crucial in regulating the earth’s climate. As Richardson thought about her future, her fascination with phytoplankton led her to the world of academia.

In 2022, Richardson was named the Michael J. Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year, earning USC's top teaching award. Her excellence in teaching — coupled with her strong research success, most recently marked by her role as founding director of the Institute for Clean Water and Healthy Ecosystems — have earned her the SEC Faculty Achievement Award and SEC Professor of the Year nomination. 

"Tammi exemplifies excellence in research, teaching, mentorship and leadership," says Joel Samuels, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "In addition to her individual contributions as a researcher and department leader, she is well known for guiding her students in creating unique research that develops their skills as scientists. Her pivotal role in starting the Institute for Clean Water is just another example of her collaborative, creative way of approaching big ideas. We are fortunate to have her in the College of Arts and Sciences."

“Teaching complements the research, and the research complements my teaching.”

Tammi Richardson in her lab


Richardson has studied marine biology around the world, from deep lakes in Siberia to tropical environments in Bermuda, but her work with the Institute for Clean Water and Healthy Ecosystems spotlights water quality issues closer to home.

The inspiration for the institute first struck her back in the early 2000s, shortly after she moved to Columbia with her husband and fellow USC faculty member, Jay Pinckney. The pair frequented the South Carolina State Museum with their son, a then-toddler was fascinated by a light-up map of the state that detailed the state’s watersheds and river drainage pathways. While Richardson’s son was drawn to the flashing lightbulbs, Richardson herself was fascinated by the questions the map raised.

“I found myself looking at that map and wondering, what happens to that water as it flows from way up here down and dumps out onto the coast?” Richardson says. The seed was planted.”

And that seed continued to grow in the summer of 2022, as the city of Columbia’s tap water developed a musty smell that ignited a panic among residents. The culprit? Geosmin, a product of algae growth that has an unpleasant odor and taste but is completely safe to drink.

“That’s an example of when there’s an issue related to water quality, where people were avoiding it because they think there’s a problem when really there isn’t,” Richardson says. “It’s a marketing issue more than anything.”

An oceanographer by training, Richardson values interdisciplinary perspectives in tackling the pressing problems that face her field. She knew water quality and ecosystem health issues were going to require a similar approach.

“When you do a Ph.D. in oceanography, you get trained in physical oceanography, chemical oceanography, biological oceanography, and geological,” Richardson says. “I had to know about seismics and oil and things like that, so my brain just thinks that way.”

To launch the Institute for Clean Water and Healthy Ecosystems, Richardson pulled together a team of faculty members with expertise in areas such as mechanical engineering, phytoplankton spectroscopy, remote sensing, autonomous unmanned systems, marine biochemistry and tourism crisis management. 

Partnering with her colleagues as well as Ph.D. students, DHEC employees and other statewide agencies, the team will tackle water quality issues through water collection and observation, contaminant mapping and modeling, strategic drone use and investigation into public perceptions of water quality.

“The idea is to stimulate discussions and possible collaborations with researchers interested in water from across campus and within the state of South Carolina,” says Richardson. The team is already making strides in expanding sampling locations throughout the state thanks to the development of drone technology, and Richardson is excited for what will come as the institute furthers its research.

This love of research combines with Richardson’s excellence in teaching to form a symbiotic relationship, or as she puts it, “a great marriage of things.”

“Teaching complements the research, and the research complements my teaching,” says Richardson. “My teaching assignments used to be the freshman course in Marine Science, and that made me a better scientist because I have been forced to think more broadly in biological oceanography. One informs the other.”

With her strong interdisciplinary research approach, real-world impact in her community and her devotion to teaching excellence, Richardson made an ideal candidate for the SEC Faculty Achievement Award.

“Tammi Richardson’s environmental work as a biologist, her outstanding commitment to student learning and personal development, and her consistent record of contributions to her profession is a reflection of the highest caliber of work our faculty are doing,” says Provost Donna Arnett. “It is an honor that she has chosen the University of South Carolina to be her academic home, and she is deeply deserving of recognition as an exemplar of SEC faculty.”

Richardson’s passion for teaching and research are an unmistakable hallmark of her work, but to be formally recognized in this way is particularly meaningful.

“Holy cow. It made my week—my month,” Richardson says. “It’s a huge honor.”