I write from Wyoming during the first few days of break to reflect on my semester spent at Bigelow Laboratory. Thinking back on the time I spent at the lab, although the last month was full of work, I know that it was overall a fulfilling experience, especially for my career in the environmental science field. It’s important to remember the good things along with the bad, because even though the most prevalent memories are of slaving away on 12-page lab reports, there are also many memories of really fun lab work, jumping off the dock, and forming friendships that will hopefully last beyond Colby.
One of the most important things that I took with me from this experience came from our program director, Dr. Nick Record, during our end-of-semester symposium where we presented our semester projects. We were joined for this event by students from Bowdoin who had a similar science semester experience, and Dr. Record emphasized the importance of being able to work together (in this case, with Bowdoin, but in other cases, other scientists and labs) to do what we can to make discoveries that help our planet and the environment. It really stuck with me that the work we did for our projects, no matter how tedious it felt in the moment, mattered to the greater scientific community, and was important.
Marine coastal waters and sediments are important resources due to the diverse organisms that live within them. Coastal environments are also socio-economically important to coastal communities defined as communities living 100 kilometers from the coast. Rivers are the primary form of transport for terrigenous materials and energy from continents to coastal sediments. These fluxes of energy and terrigenous materials control the coastal biogeochemical processes occurring in the ocean and in the sediments. Nutrients stimulate primary production in the water column which provide substrates for respiration occurring in the sediments. Humans have had a large impact on coastal biogeochemical processes by transporting large quantities of exogenous nutrients to the coastal environment. In this lab we recreated the pelagic and sedimentary environmental system in a plastic cylinder core and explored the effects of eutrophication on the sediment system by altering the nutrient composition in the water column. We measured the pore water depth profiles of dissolved iron and the bottom water oxygen concentration in the water column.
All of the sedimentary material was collected close to the Bigelow Laboratory from theDamariscotta river. We ran our experiments over 5 days and measured microbial sulfate reductions occur in the sediments.
Here was a before photo of the experimental set up:
Here is a photo showing the cores after 5 days of incubation:
Overall we observed a large increase in sulfate reduction for all of the experimental cores except for the control which had no addition of nutrients. This is due to the addition of nutrients to sediments alters the coastal biogeochemical processes of coastal systems because it would speed up the redox ladder reactions by providing more nutrients for the reactions to occur. Microbial sulfate reduction reactions are more prevalent in coastal sediments in comparison to the open ocean due to the transport of large amounts of organic matter from industrial runoff and detritus. These nutrients fuel and speed up sulfate reduction reactions.
This lab gave me a much better understanding of bio-geo-chemical processes occurring in the ocean!
The town of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, is a classic Maine coastal town, a former hub of fishing and boating that has since transformed into an idyllic tourist haven full of nautically-themed shops, seafood restaurants with catchy-sounding names, and street upon street of perfectly manicured, New England coastal homes. At the end of a beautifully wooded road, a left turn up a hill and a sign lead into the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. This facility is one of the foremost marine science labs in the country, home to over 80 scientists, from post-grads to Senate board advisors. A new facility, with multiple laboratory wings, a working seawater suite, a research vessel, and shore lab are just some of the amenities that myself and the others in the program are exposed to. In addition to the experts who teach us each one of our classes, we also have the opportunity to work on an independent project one on one with a research scientist. We develop an idea within the broader scope of one of their studies, and they help us to design, propose, and execute it over the semester. This experience is incredible, as no other class that I would have taken at Colby would expose me with such authenticity to the processes of hands-on lab research, sample collection, or proposal writing in the field of marine science. Not only is the lab a state-of-the-art facility, but it is hidden far down the coast in East Boothbay, which, as the summer draws to a close, is shifting from a warm, bustling tourist haven to a sheltered explosion of color as the leaves change and the people leave. This opportunity has given me much appreciation for the experiences I have been exposed to, and rekindled my excitement of both marine science, and learning in general.
Wow, what a semester! Being immersed in marine science research for the past six months at Bigelow (if you count my summer internship) has been both exciting and exhausting. We finished up our final presentations on Friday and celebrated with a holiday party. I got home early Saturday morning and it’s an adjustment to not be on a schedule or to be surrounded by scientists all day every day.
Me being surrounded by scientists [left- Dr. Pete Countway (microbial ecologist), right- Dr. Doug Rasher (community ecologist)]
We weren’t able to actually quantify the lacy bryozoans like we had originally hoped, but we finally made some progress in the form of DNA sequences! Using a BLAST search (think Google for DNA sequences), we were able to find lacy bryozoan DNA sequences from other parts of the world, like Europe, Australia, and Washington and compare them with ones from Maine. We also found ones from Maine in our BLAST search. The cool thing is that the Maine/North Atlantic lacy bryozoan sequences were distinct from Pacific ones, reinforcing the likelihood invasive lacy bryozoans in the Gulf of Maine were brought over from Europe, not Asia.
This is a great jumping off point for continuing my research next spring. We now have enough information to make our own molecular assay to detect these organisms. Now we just have to test it out. It’s good to take a breath from my research for a little bit, even though I love what I do.
It’s goodbye for now, not forever-
I’m going on a six-week research expedition with Bigelow scientists, leaving in early January! We’re going to leave out of Durban, South Africa and head towards the 60th parallel to study the coccolithophores I mentioned in my last post as well as the different water masses that make up the Southern Ocean. I feel very lucky to get the opportunity to go on a blue-water research expedition as a college junior- I’ve been told that most people don’t go on one of these until well after their PhD.
After that, I’ll be presenting my research from this summer on Antarctic bacteria at the annual ASLO aquatic sciences meeting in Puerto Rico and hopefully work on publishing.
Then I’ll be heading to Bermuda for a 1-week research cruise studying iron in the ocean with Bigelow chemists.
And in March, I’ll finally be back to work on my project which I hope to transition into an honors thesis.
I bet you’re asking yourself “how on earth can she do all of this as a college student?!”
Well, I won’t be next spring. I’m taking a leave of absence to do all of this research! At first, I was uncertain about it because it’s not what Colby students normally do. But I’m so glad I made that decision! Opportunities like these don’t come along every day. It’ll be like a part two to the Changing Oceans semester for me!
I’m so grateful to have been able to spend so much time at Bigelow this year. It’s been a great kickstart to my dream career of marine biology and a wonderful learning opportunity.
I’ll be keeping a blog/Twitter/something like that about the expedition this January, but until then, smooth sailing to everyone!
Here’s a shout-out to some of the tiny little critters that make life in the ocean and on Earth possible! Yes, I said on Earth! Did you know every second breath you take is made possible by phytoplankton everywhere?
Plankton are marine or freshwater organisms that can’t swim. They don’t have to be small, (the giant man-of-war jellyfish is a plankton) but most of them are. Zooplankton (tiny animals) are often larval stages of fish and other big animals, but some, like copepods, stay small for their whole lives. Phytoplankton (tiny plants) take energy from the sun and produce nutrients, just like land plants.
I wanted to showcase the beautiful Emiliania huxleyi, a coccolithophore!
Close-up of a coccolithophore. The plankton forms the lithes around itself! (https://phys.org/news/2013-08-carbon-sequestering-ocean-cope-climate.html)
It looks kind of like a golf ball, but is about 2,000 times smaller. You can’t even see it under a regular microscope; you have to cover them in gold foil and bounce electrons off to take E. hux.’s portrait. But unlike a golf ball, you can see E. hux. from outer space! Every year, coccolithophores form massive blooms known as the Sea of Milk. And the White Cliffs of Dover are white thanks to coccolithophores being smashed against the cliffs for centuries.
Giant coccolithophore bloom turns the deep blue a light teal (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/51765/bloom-in-the-barents-sea)
But why exactly are coccolithophores so out of this world?
Like corals, coccolithophores produce a limestone structure. In coccolithophores, they’re known as lithes (cocco = sphere, lith = lithes, phore = bearing, so “coccolithophore” literally means “round plankton with lithes”).
Since their lithes are really heavy for their size, they sink carbon and organic material down to the bottom of the ocean. Dead coccolithophores and other dead critters sinking down provides food for deep-sea ecosystems and helps keep the oceanic carbon cycle going.
They also help buffer ocean acidification with their limestone lithes, which makes them an important indicator species for oceanic climate change. With more carbon dioxide in the ocean, some species of coccolithophores can’t properly form their lithes, like shown below. This scientific figure looks scary, but the up-and-down axis tells you what type of coccolithophore they used and the left-to-right axis says how much carbon dioxide was added (for reference, the current atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is just over 400 ppm)
Coccolithophores at different concentrations (parts per million) of carbon dioxide (https://i2.wp.com/oceanbites.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Screen-Shot-2015-09-14-at-8.17.46-PM.png)
This will disrupt the carbon cycle and could have large effects on the ecosystem. So ocean acidification doesn’t affect only corals, but other critters too, including coccolithophores, lobsters, and even baby fish!
So let’s keep the coccolithophore love going and do our best to reduce carbon emissions! It’s the least we can do for these tiny giants that help keep human life afloat!
Long time, no blog? I’ve been crazy busy down here in Boothbay balancing classwork and independent research. It’s a busy semester, to say the least, but I’m loving it!
My research project has been going swimmingly this fall. I’m developing a technique to detect and quantify the amount of the invasive lacy bryozoan, which encrusts on kelps and makes them susceptible to detachment and inedible for humans.
Half of the time, I’m going scuba diving with Doug Rasher! And yes, we DO dive around here in Maine and we DO see lobsters!
Right now in October, the water’s about 55-57° F. Diving in Maine is nothing like diving in the Bahamas- all the divers around here say, “If you can dive in Maine, you can dive anywhere!”. It’s more difficult to manage all the gear and weight to keep you warm, but all the kelps, sponges, and crabs have so much character. Though it’s a spectacular place, we’re not just diving to enjoy Maine’s coastal ocean. We’re diving for science!
First, I collect my water samples and kelp tissue samples, then I assist Doug and his postdoc Thew in a long-term kelp forest time series project. The weather hasn’t always been perfect, but in the world of field research, you always have to improvise, adapt, and overcome.
And the other half of the time, I’m working in Pete Countway’s microbial ecology lab extracting environmental DNA (eDNA) from my water and kelp samples!
What the heck is eDNA? It’s all the DNA organisms leave behind in the environment, and it’s all over the place! For example, if a whale happened to swim past a coral reef, some of its DNA will get left behind. A scientists wanting to figure out where whales are would just have to sample some water and pull out the whale’s DNA to know if it was there or not instead of spending a lot of time and money tracking whales constantly. And with a little bit of math and a lot of time, scientists can also figure out how much whale eDNA is in each sample and could estimate how many whales pass through the area! You can use these eDNA techniques for all creatures big and small. I happen to be focusing on the small. The lacy bryozoan has a tiny larval stage that floats all around its potential kelp hosts, but you can’t count them under a microscope. We’re going to compare visual estimates of adult lacy bryzoans with my new (work-in-progress) eDNA method.
As you can see, this off-campus study is no seaside vacation, though I do get woken up by ocean sunrises and loon calls most days. But it is exciting to help solve emerging problems in science! Bye for now!