GROTON, Conn. - When the success of a Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory (NSMRL) research study on the human microbiome depended on a volunteer to go underway on a submarine to manage data collection, Hospital Corpsman Petty Officer Third Class Todd Emerson stepped up to help.
Emerson’s ability to execute the study onboard the USS Tennessee in March 2020 for its two month deployment was vital to the completion of the project. Surg. Cmdr. Joanna Halford, lead researcher on the study and a Royal Navy exchange officer, stated, “The study simply could not have been accomplished without him.”
The study seeks to characterize changes to the human microbiome—the collection of microorganisms that live on and within the human body—in submariners following a prolonged submarine deployment. The research will also determine the effect of any microbiome changes on crew health and performance.
Specifically, the NSMRL team is focusing on the gut microbiome, which contains the largest and most diverse group of microorganisms in the human body. Disruptions to the delicate balance of good and bad microbes in the gut can lead to many chronic conditions, including weight gain and obesity, autoimmune disorders, metabolic syndrome, lowered immune system, and mental health issues. According to associate investigator Lt. Mahamat Babagana, “This study will help determine if the environmental factors and other limitations associated with deployment aboard a submarine leave U.S. Navy submariners at risk of developing a microbiota profile that contributes to mental and physiological disorders known to affect fitness for duty.”
Emerson was not only responsible for conducting all data collection while underway, but he also single-handedly managed the immediate post-deployment data collection when the boat returned to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga. Due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions, the rest of the NSMRL team was unable to meet him in Kings Bay to help with the effort.
Throughout the deployment, Emerson collected, processed, and stored biological samples (fecal and blood) from active duty submariners who agreed to participate in the study. In addition, Emerson administered questionnaires to the participants that assessed mood, anxiety, tension, anger, fatigue, and diet.
Going underway was smooth sailing for Emerson, who reported no difficulties adjusting to life aboard a submarine. He noted, “Meeting some of the crew for initial data collection before we went underway really helped me integrate into life on the boat.” The crew camaraderie helped him deal with the inability to communicate with the outside world, which, according to Emerson, was the hardest part of the deployment. Halford remarked, “Based on my observations of his interaction with the crew in Kings Bay during the final data collection, he clearly integrated very well.” Cmdr. Matthew Luff, commanding officer of the boat, recognized Emerson’s accomplishments by presenting him a Navy Achievement Medal for his efforts.
Working on the microbiome study wasn’t the only thing keeping Emerson busy on the boat. When he wasn’t actively collecting data for the NSMRL study, Emerson assisted the boat’s IDC, HMCS David Crawford with record keeping and patient care. Emerson noted that this was “a great learning opportunity for me, and something I appreciate getting to experience since this position would normally be reserved for more senior corpsmen.” While aboard, he also ensured proper placement and functioning of NSMRL’s Submarine Atmosphere Health Assessment Program’s (SAHAP) onboard atmospheric monitoring.
As the study transitions to the data analysis phase, the researchers will sequence the DNA from fecal samples to identify any changes to the gut microbiome over the course of the two-month deployment. The researchers will use results from the blood samples and the questionnaires to determine if changes in the microbiome are associated with crew health or performance.
In addition to Halford, Emerson, and Babagana, the research team includes Lt. Cmdr. Joseph DeCicco. Previous contributions to the project were made by Lt. Brian Kupchak and Lt. Cmdr. Maile Richert, with ancillary support from HMCS David Crawford.