It Happened One Night

“If you Google my name, orange goo pops up. Somehow, I’m associated with this forever,” said Emanuel Hignutt, who neither performs with the Blue Man Group, makes Play-Doh, nor works as The Joker’s stunt double.

Hignutt, who teaches business writing at UMUC, is a chemist by training and holds a Master of Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2011, when he received a very unusual call from his boss, he was manager of the chemical analysis section of Alaska’s state environmental health laboratory.

Typically, his office was involved in regulatory work, such as analyzing milk and shellfish for toxins. Instead, his boss was telling him that some 375 residents of the remote Alaskan village of Kivalina, which can only be accessed by plane and is totally unreachable in the winter, had awoken one morning to find their village covered in what they could only describe as “orange goo.” Understandably, residents were concerned that the substance might be hazardous.

“It was covering the roofs. It was all over the ground, like snow. It was in the water tanks. It was all over the village,” Hignutt said. “It was something that, literally, happened overnight.”

The call, he said, was very unusual. “Unknowns weren’t something we could do. In my nine years in that office, this was the only time I received a call like that.”

If officials had suspected that the strange substance was an environmental incident, such as an oil spill or an overturned truck leaking hazardous materials, they would have turned the matter over to the state division that handles such emergencies. But the goo didn’t seem to fit that bill. So, Hignutt, the senior-level chemist in the Anchorage lab, was appointed project manager and assigned the job of solving the mystery.

That was no easy task. Although only 625 miles separated Hignutt’s office and Kivalina, it was a challenging feat to get from his lab to this interior Alaskan village and back. “It’s not somewhere you can just drive to,” he said. “There’s no road to it.”

It turned out that the best solution was to send sampling kits to the village―kits consisting of sterile, pre-cleaned, glass jars that were roughly half the size of peanut butter containers and had Teflon-lined caps. “Whatever you put in there, even if it’s a biological product, it won’t get contaminated by the bottle itself,” Hignutt said.

A resident, who already had a trip planned to Anchorage, agreed to bring the samples with her.

And soon, Hignutt was on his way to the Anchorage airport to meet the mysterious goo face-to-face for the first time.

He stood in the reception area with a card bearing the resident’s name, and she found him. Some samples had been collected in water. Others were dry. “It was a very bright orange, rust-colored material, which was very prominent. It didn’t have any distinguishing features beyond its color,” Hignutt recalled, adding that the samples in water had even more pronounced colors.

With the evidence in hand, Hignutt had his marching orders. Using microscopes at his lab he inspected what he could, but he could glean nothing from the samples to help him ascertain the nature of the goo. So, he shipped a sample to a colleague at a federal lab in Washington state. When that colleague also proved baffled, Hignutt sent a sample to a renowned expert on biological organisms who worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lab in Charleston, SC.

After studying the sample under an electron microscope, the NOAA office identified the orange goo as some sort of fungus or spore, which was not hazardous. Also, the office was able to identify the size of the spores, which it turned out were so small that Kivalina’s filters would prevent them from entering its water supply.

“That was a big relief. Residents could continue to use their water system,” Hignutt said.

With that good news, Hignutt’s office had officially completed its role in the investigation, though it still maintained contact with the village. But now, Hignutt was able to concentrate on catching up on the backlog of work and projects that had accumulated while he was investigating the goo.

For him, it marked the culmination of a strange occurrence that remains an enigma to this day. Although it’s true that the type of rust had been identified, the mystery of why this particular substance suddenly arrived in such great numbers in this particular village has never been solved. “For some reason, these fungi decided to deposit in a very large volume,” he said.

And so, when you Google Hignutt’s name, you get mysterious orange goo. It’s a fitting search result for someone whose career has taken so many interesting turns.

Hignutt, who grew up in Sacramento, said his parents hadn’t been able to attend college and he wasn’t sure what he was going to study when he arrived at the University of California, Davis. He found that he enjoyed the chemistry courses the most, so he declared that major. “It’s not a field that people typically select from the get-go,” he said.

In 1995, he and his wife moved to Alaska, where he worked for a private firm. “It was a complete 180-degree difference of climate, culture and everything,” he said.

When his contract with the company expired, Hignutt and his wife chose to stay in Alaska. That’s when he secured his job with the state. They would live in Alaska for 18 years,

In 2012, he began studying for his Master of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, where a large part of the program involved writing. “It’s a very English-writing intensive program,” he said. He also tutored undergraduates in writing while completing his graduate work, and he grew increasingly interested in teaching.

Last December, Hignutt began teaching writing online at UMUC, with a focus on business writing. He said his 22 students hail from Okinawa, Japan; South Korea; and Europe, including Germany and the Netherlands.  About half live in the United States.

“It’s really all over the world,” he said. “It’s really interesting to have a course, where you’re literally covering the world.”