Feb 082009
Authors: Jessica Cline

For two months CSU researcher Diana Wall and her team of scientists lived at the bottom of the world, in cold weather and constant sunlight.

The team of eight university researchers, including five from CSU, participated in a six-week soil ecosystem research project in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica.

Wall, a biology professor, has been traveling to Antarctica since 1989 to participate in fieldwork. The trip was her 19th.

The group consisted of Wall; two CSU graduate students, Karen Seaver and Tracy Smith; two CSU postdoctoral students, Breana Simmons and Uffe Nielsen; and three Brigham Young University researchers, Nick Demetras, a graduate student; Byron Adams, a molecular evolutionary biologist and his doctoral graduate student, Bishwo Adkihari.

The team utilized their time conducting lab research at the McMurdo Station located on Ross Island and doing fieldwork and collecting samples in the Dry Valleys.

“Since the field season is so short and that is all the time we get down there for the year, there is a lot to be done and little time to do it,” said Tracy Smith, a CSU graduate student.

“The research that we are doing is so interesting and the people are so passionate about it, though, so it really drives the atmosphere and makes it a pretty intellectually stimulating experience,” Smith said.

The project aimed to characterize the biodiversity and ecosystem functioning of the communities that inhabit the continent, focusing mainly on the biodiversity of the aquatic animal nematodes.

The research conducted was part of the Long Term Ecological Research project to learn about the earth’s global systems and climate changes in different areas of the world.

“Combined with the research of other LTER team members, ecological dynamics in the Dry Valleys can be compared with other regions, especially arctic and arid ecosystems,” said Karen Seaver, a CSU graduate student.

“Also, Antarctica is an important area of study for climate change research, and the Dry Valleys provide a unique system in order to study the biotic and abiotic effects in soils, lakes, streams and glaciers,” she added.

The researchers were exposed to conditions that varied from 24 hours of sunlight and spending nights in very isolated areas, including areas that were a 40-minute helicopter ride away from civilization.

“It definitely felt like we were pretty isolated from the rest of the world and almost on our own little planet,” Smith said. “So being disconnected in that way was a big difference.”

Seaver said constant sun was hard to get used to, but also had its advantages.

“I never completely accustomed to walking out into broad daylight after a long day in the lab,” Seaver said. “Although, the increased hours of sunshine helped our work, especially late night and all-night field sampling trips in the Dry Valleys.”

Seaver described the group’s New Year’s party as “surreal” because they counted down during daylight.

While living at the station, Seaver said it was a lot like living at a small, remote college; they stayed in dorms and ate in a cafeteria. They had access to a general store, a post office, a number of gyms and a church, in addition to all the other services aimed at supporting scientific research.

Seaver said that the morale of the group was kept high with science lectures, concerts, sporting events, and programs like the New Year’s music event called IceStock that the community from a nearby town participated in.

Along with conducting research, the group kept in touch with grade school children across the U.S., sharing their experiences with them via a blog developed by Breana Simons, a CSU postdoctoral researcher.

Simons developed the blog to communicate with grade school students in Michigan, and because of its success, other schools asked to participate. On the blog she updated the schools on what she and her teammates were doing.

She and her teammates shared daily activities and their progress through the blog, which highlighted all the different things they did while in Antarctica and their purpose of going.

Seaver said she thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience and would definitely do it again if given the chance.

“While there is plenty of lab time in both places, it was an unbelievable opportunity to take in the sights by helicopter en route to the field, and once on the ground, to hike around in such spectacular areas while contributing to ongoing research,” Seaver said.

Smith agreed.

“You find yourself at one in the morning being asked by a co-worker to help them with this great idea they had that needs to be sampled right then and there,” Smith said. “But no matter how tired you might be, you just do it because you know they might not get another chance to do that experiment.”

Staff writer Jessica Cline can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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