Students on a ship

Story by Abby Metzger, posted May 26, 2017

To get to the Antarctic Peninsula as part the National Science Foundation's U.S. Antarctic Program, you first fly to South America. Then, aboard a beefy icebreaker — in this case, the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer — you endure a three-day crossing of the Drake Passage, a brawny band of water between South America's Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. Humungous swells can make even the saltiest of oceanographers seasick. Going to Antarctica during the winter is even more of a feat — the days are especially dark and frigid.

Over the last two Antarctic winters (which correspond to North American summers), three undergraduate students have braved the trip and spent a month at sea off the coast of the Antarctic peninsula — all in the name of science. Together with their research advisor and biological oceanographer, Kim Bernard, they formed an integral part of a five-year NOAA project to study the winter sea ice ecosystem, focusing on Antarctic krill, an essential part of the Antarctic marine food web. The opportunity to conduct real polar research among accomplished scientists is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for these students, says Bernard.

"You don't get these opportunities very often," she says. "Many options for students to go to sea are classes, which are amazing, but it's still different than working with scientists who are there to do real research."

Engaging students in such unique research is testament to CEOAS' commitment to real-world learning, a commitment that runs deep within the undergraduate program especially. In fact, every CEOAS undergraduate participates in experiential learning — through extended overnight excursions to field sites in California and Oregon, or outings on the open sea.

"Experiential learning allows students to put into practice what they have learned in the classroom," says Jessica Cardinal-Lanier, the experiential learning coordinator for CEOAS. "Well-planned hands-on experiences provide students with the opportunity to grow academically, professionally and personally by defining career pathways; building cultural awareness, leadership and self-confidence; and enhancing critical thinking and problem-solving skills."

A Krill-centric Ecosystem

Lacey Gunther was one of the undergraduates to travel to Antarctica. The environmental sciences major had received an Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and the Arts award in 2015 and began collaborating with faculty mentor Kim Bernard. After only a few weeks in the lab working on preserved Antarctic krill, Gunther proved to be a capable and dedicated student — a winning combination that earned her a spot on the research cruise. She credits Bernard for helping to prepare her for the coldest continent on the planet.

"Kim was such a good mentor. It made it easy to ask questions about anything I was confused about; Kim went out of her way to teach me. I think that level of care is characteristic of many CEOAS faculty," says Gunther, an Oregon native. "It was also a privilege to work with the science team. It was like a small family."

During her month at sea, Gunther worked the night shift. Scientists and students alike labored at a frenzied pace, logging 12-hour shifts around the clock to catch krill and other zooplankton in net tows before measuring, staging and sexing them. Gunther specifically helped deploy the net, known as an Isaacs-Kidd Midwater Trawl, into the frosty waters and sort the krill samples by hand and microscope.

Up close, krill look like shrimp (although they are technically not shrimp). While they don't get much bigger than two inches, these crustaceans form an essential part of the food web. Seals, whales, squid, fish and seabirds eat them. In Antarctica, they may be especially important: NOAA calls the ocean around the continent a "krill-centric" ecosystem.

Despite their importance, little is known about krill populations in the wintertime. Evidence suggests that krill use sea ice as a refuge from predators such as whales and penguins, and may also graze on sea ice algae. A warming planet could change the timing and extent of sea ice formation and therefore impact krill numbers, with possibly dire consequences rippling throughout the food web.

"We know Antarctic krill are susceptible to changes in sea ice conditions, but we don't know exactly why or how. There just haven't been enough studies done in the winter time," Bernard says.

Two other undergraduates have assisted in the effort to learn more: Monisha Sugla and Sean Mahaffey, who both went with Bernard on the 2016 winter cruise. Sugla, a self-described warm-weather person prone to seasickness, first came to Oregon State through the NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Processing the krill was a huge learning curve, but Sugla got the hang of it after about a week. "By the end of the cruise, we were so efficient. You could see how much we learned from the beginning to the end," she says.

Despite the difficult journey and isolation, Sugla says going on the trip was perhaps the best decision she has made. "To be part of something that actually matters was so incredible," she says. "I would do it again and again."

Sean Mahaffey, who is studying ocean science at Oregon State, also appreciated working shoulder-to-shoulder with so many different scientists, including some who are trying to protect the ecosystem through creation of an Antarctic Marine Protected area. "The exposure to different disciplines was fantastic. Although most of the scientists onboard were marine biologists, there were also some chemical oceanographic experiments going on," he says.

During small windows of free time, the undergraduates worked on a giant New York Times crossword puzzle pinned to the wall. Halfway through the cruise, they celebrated with a crazy hat or wig party. Mahaffey speaks fondly of making krill origami. Sugla brought temporary tattoos to help keep a fun atmosphere during the Antarctic winter, while Gunther would slip away after her night shift to watch the sunrise.

Mad Krill Skills

Besides an opportunity to contribute to science, the experience was a chance for the undergraduates to learn important leadership skills. They had to work in a harsh environment and endure close quarters, all without family or familiarity. In the end, students walked away with new teambuilding, collaboration and problem-solving abilities. Bernard says even the scientists from NOAA took note of the students' drive and competency.

"I like to get students involved in field research because having this kind of experience is huge in terms of character building," Bernard says.

And when it comes to facing the icy Southern Ocean during the darkest days of the year, character is key. "People who are laid back, easy to get along with, as well as dependable and hard-working…those are the personality traits for being at sea for a long time," Bernard says. "It's not always a combination you can easily find, but these undergrads had it! I felt honored that I could give them this sort of opportunity, and so proud to be able to work beside them."

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