Sunday, January 10, 2010

What am I doing here??

So what am I doing in Antarctica? I have been caught up in describing this fascinating place and haven’t explained why I am here! I am doing field and lab work as part of Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) at Palmer Station. The LTER network was founded by the National Science Foundation in 1980 and consists of 26 sites throughout the United States, including 2 sites in Antarctica. LTER research began at Palmer in 1990 and continues today, mostly centering on an annual 6-week research cruise along the West Antarctic Peninsula. I came down to Palmer on that cruise, although myself and another lab volunteer, Amanda are staying at the station to collect water samples while the ship continues southward.

The LTER team looks at many areas of ecosystem dynamics, from the microbial level (my research) to phytoplankton, zooplankton and krill, to larger animals like fish, seals and penguins. Physical oceanography is also documented. I think this is what science should be: people with different areas of expertise working together to try to understand a complex and changing system. There is a group from Rutgers University looking at phytoplankton and deploying rocket-shaped gliders that track oceanographic characteristics like temperature, salinity and chlorophyll levels. A group from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary studies zooplankton, of which krill is the keystone species here in the Antarctic. A group from MSU Bozeman studies penguin diet, foraging behavior and response to human presence. A student from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/MIT is collecting data on particulate flux through the water column, and my group from Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is collecting data on bacterial abundance and growth rate, as well as chemical and nutrient cycling in the ocean such as dissolved carbon, and ammonium and other nitrogen species. Although there are specific aspects of the ecosystem that we are particularly interested in, LTER is a holistic study of an rather than a specific research question.

More often scientists research a specific question because it’s what they can get funding for, but that imposes the arbitrary framework of funding on the natural world that we are studying. In reality, what you find out from research is often not what you set out to investigate. When you write a grant, you are guessing what the most compelling aspect of your research area is and you propose to study it. But how can you know what is most significant before you study it? LTER allows for a more measured exploration of a study area, to really understand relationships between the elements and species in an ecosystem. Each season of fieldwork becomes one data point, in a long timeseries. My research doesn’t have a specific punchline for this year; I am collecting the 7th year of microbial ecology data, and it may take 20 years of data to understand the dynamics of the carbon cycle at the microbial level. So it’s not sexy, but it’s how science should be.

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