I have found that change, risks, and being outside your comfort zone is where the magic happens in life. As Alan Watts said, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” After leaving my comfortable and steady job as a data analyst this past summer, I dove into a series of changes as I started my journey as a Ph.D. student.
Embarking on my new adventure of starting a Ph.D. program, fortunately, began with an exciting opportunity to travel internationally, help colleagues with their research, and get my first hands-on experience with paleoclimate research. Both my master’s and bachelor’s degrees were in biology, but after learning about paleoclimate several years ago, I decided to change gears (and dive head first) into a new field of research for my Ph.D. Beginning my doctoral experience with hands-on lab work in a country I had never been to was really exciting.
Ice core science is commonly an international effort due to the challenging logistics of retrieving and storing polar ice cores and the variety of skills required to analyze them. The OSU Ice Core & Quaternary Geochemistry Lab has close colleagues at the University of Copenhagen at the Niels Bohr Institute Physics of Ice Climate and Earth. I had the opportunity to help those folks with an extensive gas measurement “campaign” (i.e., an extended period of time collecting measurements) and also learn a lot about the lab techniques I will use in my own research.
The ice used in the campaign was from Northeast Greenland in an area of fast-moving ice called an ice stream. Collecting ice from this region allows researchers to uncover how the ice stream may contribute to sea level rise and reveal past climate. The gas extracted from the ice core is derived from small bubbles locked in the ice, revealing past atmospheric conditions. (For more information on the project, check out the EastGRIP website). During the campaign, we had a team of 5-8 scientists running a continuous analysis of the dust and gas content of the core and also collected meltwater from the ice to examine the water chemistry at a later date.
The campaign needed lots of hands on deck to take measurements continuously throughout the day. This approach allows for precise and high-resolution measurements. Ice was prepared and continuously melted on a heated platform. The meltwater then flowed through a series of systems that measured dust and gas and exported the meltwater to be analyzed later. Our time was spent diagnosing issues with a complicated and specialized system, cutting and preparing ice in a -15°C freezer, monitoring the measurements, and collecting discrete meltwater samples.
Serendipitously, while I was there doing ice core science, the University of Copenhagen celebrated the 100th birthday of Willi Daansgard, a Danish pioneer in ice core science. The university held a three-day symposium hosting ice core science talks and celebrating Daansgard’s achievements in ice core science. I was really excited and thankful to learn about the rich history of this field I have just joined.
Aside from the research, Copenhagen taught me the joy of commuting by bike, and I immediately bought a bike first thing when I got back to the U.S. Exploring castles and palaces, and biking around exploring the city was a fun way to spend the evenings. This trip was a great adventure experiencing a new country and learning about the new field I am so excited to now be a part of.
Maria Cristina Alvarez Rodriguez, OEB M.S. Student
Since I was a child, I have been drawn to science. I always imagined myself working in a chemistry laboratory and participating in research; unfortunately, this is a hard dream to have if you come from Panama, where research opportunities are few or non-existent. But I was lucky enough to receive a national scholarship to study sciences related to water resources internationally, and I used it to study ocean sciences at OSU. It was here that I was introduced to the different aspects of oceanography, and I learned that I could get involved in research.
After my undergraduate degree, I was accepted into the College of Ocean, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences to get my master’s degree under the supervision of Laurie Juranek, a badass chemical oceanographer. As part of the NSF-funded Synoptic Arctic Survey, an international effort to collect data to detect ongoing and future climate change, I embarked on a two-month-long journey that took me to the North Pole!
My role in this exploration is to study dissolved oxygen concentrations in the Arctic basin. Aboard the ship Healy, we worked from Monday to Sunday for two months straight, collecting a variety of data. During what we called a “long station,” we conducted CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth) casts and deployed VPR (video plankton recorders), bongo nets, Van Veen grabs, HAPS Cores, and multicores at deeper stations.
When we did full CTD casts, we sampled from 24 bottles, each containing 12 liters of Arctic water, to be shared by multiple teams. The dissolved oxygen team, all from OSU (Laurie, Genevieve Coblentz-Strong and myself), sampled first in order to limit environmental contamination in our water. Laurie trained us to properly sample from the water, always watching out for bubbles — we don’t want bubbles! The first thing we need to do is to take the draw temperature, which is the temperature of the water when we first open the Niskin bottle. This is an important step for density calculations at the time the sample is taken. I rinse the flask and start filling it up with water, watching out for any bubbles, then I hand my co-worker the flask so she can “pickle” the water with chemicals that will “fix” the oxygen concentrations of the sample – keep it the same for later analysis. She gives the flask a good shake to mix all the chemicals. Once we finish, we fill the neck of the flask with deionized water to prevent any oxygen from entering the sample. After 30 minutes and a second shake of the flasks, we are ready to leave them in the dark so they can come up to room temperature.
After us, the CO2 people always have their turn, then the methane group, then the biologists. In the end, everyone has taken some water to do their analysis. While the CTD team is sampling there is other science happening on the other side of the ship. Plankton nets are deployed to vertically sample from the water column. The biologists deploy the VPR, which is a camera that takes pictures of the microorganisms in the water column. There are pumps to filter water to collect particulate organic carbon in the water column – the pumps need to be under water for four hours!
Lastly comes the benthic (bottom) sampling, which uses different coring instruments to get samples of sediment from the ocean floor along with the organisms in it. At this point, it is already midnight, and the cores will take hours to process, extending to the early morning of the next day, when the O2 team starts doing Winkler titrations to get discrete oxygen concentrations from our samples. With my data, I hope to find patterns of changes occurring in the Arctic Basin, and since this is an area with scarce data, I will also be contributing to creating a baseline study of the transformation of this ecosystem for comparison with future data.
At the top of the world, the Healy crew organized what they call “ice liberty” which was the event in which everyone on the ship gets to go walk in the ice at the North Pole. The ice experts made sure the thickness was safe and they determined a perimeter in which we could hang out for two hours in the snow. We all got dressed up in our mustang suits, multiple layers of clothes below the suit, scarves, face coverings, beanies, and gloves. We made a line and walked down to the ice. It was a magical moment that I never thought I would ever experience. A Panamanian from Central America in one of the coldest places on Earth?
During this trip, we got to experience most of the items on the “bucket list for the Arctic.” On our way back, we saw a beautiful young female polar bear! She looked in great condition and the smell of the ship attracted her to the boat. It was incredible to see this magnificent animal, using the snow to clean herself. We also got to see the northern lights three times! One was incredibly intense, the green flashes of light dancing around the sky like a river flowing through the air. On open waters, we saw many bowhead whales and walruses. During these moments of awe and wonder, I felt an immense gratitude towards everything, and everyone involved in this exploration. Every single person in the Healy did their best to make the science happen. We felt joy during our work, made good friends, and learned from each other about what it means to be a human, a scientist, and a student.
Photo credits: All pictures were taken during NSF-funded Synaptic Arctic Survey (SAS), Healy 2202 Research Cruise.
One morning in August 2017 I woke up feeling sick. I was looking forward to the last week of my first-ever research internship in the Boston University Antarctic Research Group, where I was first introduced to paleoclimatology and was anticipating an opportunity for Antarctic fieldwork in a year or two. I was supposed to join a friend in Connecticut that weekend, but I thought I had food poisoning, so I canceled my plans and spent the weekend eating crackers in bed instead.
That “stomach bug” turned into five days of discomfort. Student Health and my doctor back home gave me some quick fixes—reduced stress and caffeine, antibiotics for a potential infection—but nothing helped. The weeks stretched into months and I completed the fall semester sick and miserable.
I wouldn’t receive a diagnosis until February: I had gastroparesis, or partial paralysis of the stomach muscles causing severe nausea. I began treating it with medication, which would eventually bring my symptoms down to a manageable level.
Because I got sick at the beginning of my career in geoscience, no part of my research experience can be separated from my chronic illness. I remember very little of my early Earth science classes; I was distracted by hunger when I couldn’t eat and nausea when I could, as well as headaches, dizziness, brain fog, shortness of breath, and fatigue. While my friends in the program were talking about exciting fieldwork opportunities and fun nearby hikes, I was so malnourished my hair was falling out.
My hopes of going to Antarctica—or of participating in any fieldwork at all—were dashed. Before I got sick I had been going to the gym five days a week to better my chances of being picked for the field team; now I could barely walk to class.
I had to turn down an offer to work in another lab at BU because I was still too ill to stand at a lab bench. Later, the medications I took to treat my stomach made me severely anemic, making data analysis a slow and frustrating slog.
While my health has improved dramatically over the past five years, I still deal with symptoms of my illness every day. I might be going about a normal week, eating well and even feeling good enough to hit the gym a few times, then suddenly be unable to leave the house due to nausea and painful stomach cramps. These episodes might last hours, days, or even weeks. I have to eat on a regular schedule and avoid certain foods to minimize my chances of a flare-up. All these things can make classes, lab work, and especially fieldwork challenging.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to complete an undergraduate thesis on biogeochemical cycling in marshes with samples that had already been collected. The lab work and data analysis were within my abilities at the time, so I was able to complete the project without major issue.
My PhD project here in CEOAS also works with existing samples—one of the benefits of ice core science. Polar fieldwork may have a high barrier to access, but we have a long and varied archive of well-studied cores from both poles.
Although I still dream of doing fieldwork in Greenland or Antarctica, I have had the opportunity for lots of fun scientific experiences as part of my Ph.D. This spring I got to travel to Denmark to collect ice samples from the archive at the University of Copenhagen. Later in the spring, I helped an undergrad in our lab drill cave ice samples from Lava Beds National Monument.
This summer, I spent five weeks at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla learning some lab techniques for my project. This fall I attended the International Partnerships in Ice Core Science (IPICS) meeting in Crans Montana, Switzerland, with several members of my lab. While fun and educational, all these trips have presented their own challenges for my health.
I’m used to living with my illness. I try not to let it get me down, and in general it doesn’t. I love the work I get to do in the ice core lab and my health rarely gets in the way these days. However, positive thinking can’t get you out of chronic illness. I can’t ignore the realities of my health out of a desire to do the same things as my colleagues.
Someone who has always been healthy and able to rely on their body to complete the tasks they ask of it can have a difficult time understanding the unpredictable rollercoaster of chronic illness. If you can hike three miles carrying field equipment one week, you can probably rely on being able to do it again the next week. A chronically ill person may find that hike easy one week and completely impossible the next due to changes in their health and energy. Both weeks may even look the same to an outside observer.
The next time you plan field work, a conference, or a lab celebration, consider that there may be members of your lab with invisible hurdles to participating in the same activities as you. Creating an environment where students and colleagues feel comfortable voicing their needs without judgment can go a long way. Reading up on things like spoon theory, which chronically ill people (or “spoonies”) use to describe their available energy, can also offer some insight.
As we all strive to improve equity and access in geoscience, it’s impossible to anticipate every possible need that will arise. What we all can do is interrogate our picture of what a geoscientist is and does and make room in the field for people with a wider array of experiences and abilities.
Jenna Epifanio, Ph.D. student in Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
What would you see if you looked into a time capsule from 1.5 million years ago? If the time capsule contained air before it was sealed up, you would find out a lot about the Earth’s climate. Between October and January of last year, I had the opportunity to join a team of researchers to go find some of that air, trapped in a natural time capsule: An Antarctic ice sheet.
using ice to understand earth’s past
Ice on our planet’s polar ice sheets has been preserving records of climate for hundreds of thousands of years, and in the case of Antarctica, a lot longer than that. Antarctica is thought to have first become covered in ice about 30 million years ago, which means if we sample ice at the correct locations on the continent, we might be able to discover some of that extremely old ice.
What makes polar ice a great archive for climate science is the direct nature of what it preserves. Not only do the water chemistry and particles trapped in the ice tell us about the past climate, but ice also collects tiny air bubbles that preserve an undisturbed record of the Earth’s atmosphere. Because ice is formed by layers and layers of snow that become packed down over thousands of years, all of the bubbles that are trapped in the ice sheet are preserved in chronological order – the deeper down in the ice sheet, the older the ice and the air trapped in it. Climate scientists can drill a long ice core and analyze it to determine the chemistry of the ice as well as the composition of atmospheric air in the ice bubbles.
Even though Antarctica glaciated over 30 million years ago, we probably won’t ever find ice that old on the continent. Because ice moves quickly (geologically speaking) and is subject to stress, melting and flow, most of the extremely old ice in Antarctica has already been destroyed. Currently, the oldest record of past climate contained in an ice core goes back 800,000 years. Recently, however, there has been a push to identify ice older than this because of an interesting question about the climate system that we want to answer.
Between 1.2 million and about 900,000 years ago, the Earth went through a dramatic shift in ice age cycles. During what’s known as the Mid Pleistocene Transition (MPT), the Earth changed from having ice ages every 40,000 years to having much colder and longer ice ages every 100,000 years. We know this from ocean sediment records of climate that contain indirect clues – proxies – describing climate conditions. However, an ice core record that covers that period would be invaluable: Instead of using proxy records of climate recorded in the ocean sediments, we would have a sample of the atmosphere itself to measure and answer questions about the climate from that period.
Recently, scientists collected ice that was dated to be 1.5 million to about 2.7 million years old at a location in Antarctica called the Allan Hills. Situated about 140 miles from the U.S Antarctic base, McMurdo station, the Allan Hills is known as a “blue ice area,” and when you see it for the first time, there is no question as to why it bears the name. Blue ice areas (BIAs) are created when winds scour the ice sheet, removing the top layer of uncompressed snow and exposing the blue ice. At the Allan Hills, this process is combined with other physical factors that allow very old ice to be found near the surface. That extremely old ice near the surface is what I, and a few wonderful people from around the country, were there to sample.
The primary goal of the field season was to re-drill an ice core at a location that had been identified to have ice that is 2.7 million years old. The original ice core, collected a few years ago, was fairly small, and has mostly been consumed as samples were chipped off of it in the process of understanding its age. One secondary goal of the expedition was to drill some reconnaissance samples in locations that were good candidates for old ice. Over the seven weeks, we successfully drilled three 150-m ice cores, one of which will very likely contain ice that is 2.7 million years old.
Field work at the bottom of the world
Just arriving in Antarctica is an ordeal. A commercial flight to Christchurch, New Zealand takes about 18 hours. I was the only representative from Oregon State University on the team, so meeting some new and also some familiar faces was the first order of business when I arrived. Along with the other researchers, I met our camp manager, Anna, an impressive and ferocious mountaineering woman on her tenth season in Antarctica. I also met Elizabeth (‘E’) and Tanner, both professional ice core drillers (yep, that’s a real job!), who have a ridiculous amount of experience between the two of them. These tough-as-nails people would teach me how to drill ice cores in one of the most extreme places on the planet. To get from New Zealand to the icy continent, the team and dozens of other researchers and personnel boarded a US Air Force C-17, a gigantic military plane. The trip took five loud, and quite cramped hours, until we landed on the airfield located on the ice near McMurdo station.
We spent ten days at McMurdo Station collecting camp gear, planning meals and food needs, and training in snow survival skills, and then we flew to our remote field site. Multiple Twin Otter flights from McMurdo Station to the Allan Hills were needed to deliver nine people, two ice core drilling rigs, and all of our camping gear. Two other researchers and I were on the last flight, which was delayed due to high winds and poor visibility at the Allan Hills.
The first order of business was to finish setting up camp, and begin setting up our drilling equipment. The next few days were grueling work, lugging gear to different drill sites, drilling anchors in the ice to secure our tents and equipment, and testing the electrical generators that would power the blue ice drill, a 9.5-inch diameter ice core drill that we would use to extract literal TONS of ice over the next seven weeks. The exhaustion that set in at the end of each very long day made sleeping in a tent during 24 hours of daylight some of the easiest sleeping I’d ever done.
It is amazing how quickly you can adapt to harsh conditions. Our team was in the field for seven weeks. That’s seven weeks of waking up in a tent every morning to freezing temperatures, getting dressed, grabbing some warm tea and a quick breakfast, then heading out to our drill sites to continue the drilling from the day before. Drinking water was made by melting ice that we chipped out of the ice sheet at a special “sterile” location. There were no showers, and all my baby-wipes were frozen into a solid block of ice before I got to my tent that first night in the field. The sun never set, and if the wind would stop howling in the middle of the night, I would wake up, disturbed by the sudden change. Those nights were special, though, because you could hear the ice sheet cracking. Loud pops echoed across the ice sheet and reminded you of how incredible it was that you were there.
Science during a pandemic
I should be in Antarctica right now, sleeping in a Scott tent, enjoying the company of some amazing scientists and ice core drillers. The Allan Hills ice core drilling project was funded for two field seasons. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the field work has been delayed, and I’m sitting in Corvallis, Oregon, remembering that dramatic place. I don’t feel sorry for myself for missing out on a second season; being there once was the experience of a lifetime, and I’m grateful to have had it. Living through this pandemic does highlight how dramatically nature can change our lives, giving a little bit of perspective as to why understanding climate change is important. Understanding what is natural, normal, and possible for the Earth’s climate system is key to understanding how it will change in the future. Understanding the nature of that change can prepare us for what comes next.
By Kirsten Steinke, Ph.D. student in Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry
I wake up and rub my eyes as my 5:45 alarm goes off in the morning. Still pitch black out my window, I quickly throw on my workout clothes, grab my yoga mat and head to the lounge for 6 am group yoga. After spending thirty minutes waking up my muscles, I head to the gym for my morning workout routine with my buddy Ken: a three-mile run on the treadmill while watching an episode of Rick and Morty. Sufficiently sweaty, I head to the girl’s bathroom (which is way nicer than the one I have at home) and take a quick shower. Finally awake, I head back to my room and get my stuff together for the long day of work. I look out my window again and the sun is just starting to rise behind the glacier. I stop what I’m doing and take a minute to just watch. I can hardly believe that this is the view I get to start my day with every morning.
After the winter solstice on June 22, the sun started returning rapidly to our region of the Western Antarctic Peninsula (wAP). The sunrise is a welcome site as in the dead of winter we were only getting about 3-4 hours of sunlight every day. In total, our OSU research team spent about six months conducting research and living at one of the Antarctic research stations owned by the United States Antarctic Program (USAP): Palmer Station. Palmer is situated on Anvers Island in the northern part of the Western Antarctic Peninsula. The smallest of the three research stations run by USAP, Palmer looks out over the Southern Ocean and the vast mountain ranges that are typical of the Antarctic Peninsula. The setting is spectacular: We watch icebergs float in and out of the surrounding bays and listen to the earth-shattering eruptions of the glacier calving nearby. One iceberg, dubbed Old Faithful, got stuck in the bay and stays with us all season. It is comforting in a way to see it standing faithfully by each day as we begin our field work.
“Why on Earth are you going to Antarctica in the middle of winter?” was a common question that I, and the rest of my research team, got asked. Believe it or not, the changes that occur in Antarctic ecosystems during the winter are poorly understood. Our team of krill researchers sought to fill some of these knowledge gaps as we conducted experiments on the overwintering of arguably the most important keystone species in Antarctic ecosystems: Antarctic krill. These tiny crustaceans, about as big as the length of your pinky as adults, support most of the top predators in the Antarctic ecosystem. Whales, penguins, seals, fish and other seabirds rely on krill as their primary food source.
Our research project was designed by my advisor, Dr. Kim Bernard. She’s interested in how the warming at the northern wAP affects the food available to krill throughout the autumn and winter. The northern wAP is warming quicker than most other places on Earth, which has altered the food web dynamics at the northern WAP. Krill feed primarily on diatoms (microscopic algae) and copepods (microscopic zooplankton). The warming temperatures have resulted in declines in diatoms but more copepods at the northern wAP. Winter is a critical life history stage for young krill as food availability decreases in response to lower light levels. We wanted to know how this climate-induced change in food availability, compounded by the overall lower levels of food availability, affects the physiology of young krill. Hence, six months of Antarctic research collecting, observing, and learning from our kriller friends.
While these six months may have been the most demanding of my Ph.D. career, they were also some of the best months of my life. We worked long hours in the lab and out in the field six days a week, making sure we had enough resources to support our long-term feeding experiment and to carry out our physiological experiments. Similar to the krill, we learned how to adapt to the extreme winter conditions. We got used to working in complete darkness, learned which path to take to work when winds were blowing over 100 knots and discovered that the quickest way to warm our fingers and toes after a long day of field work was to hold them directly against the small space heater in our office.
Our long field season at Palmer Station, Antarctica finally came to an end in the middle of October. In addition to the hundreds of samples that we successfully obtained from our research project, we left Palmer with new memories, incredible stories and 17 new friends that we were lucky enough to call our polar family. This experience was truly one of the greatest of my life and I cannot wait until our next field season starts in February 2021. It’s going to be kriller.