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Miami scientists travel to the South Pole: Part one of a four-part series

12/02/2011

“Team Protist” after landing at Lake Fryxell. Left to right: Nick Ketchum, senior; Jenna Dolhi, doctoral student, and Rachael Morgan-Kiss, assistant professor of microbiology.
Scientists from Miami University will have a presence in the Antarctic for more than half a year, from the beginning of the Antarctic summer, Oct. 2011, through the beginning of the "polar night," June 2012.

While adventure seekers and tourists are expected to visit the South Pole in the next month to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the famous Race to the South Pole between Norwegian Roald Amundsen (reached Dec. 14, 1911) and Briton Robert Falcon Scott (reached Jan. 17, 1912), the Miami researchers will be on scientific journeys.

Two teams of researchers, led by Rachael Morgan-Kiss, assistant professor of microbiology, and by Richard Lee, Distinguished Professor of Zoology, will be conducting research at different ends of the continent, joined by graduate students, an undergraduate student and an elementary school teacher. Yuta Kawarasaki, doctoral student of Lee, will conduct research over a five-month period from February through June.

The U.S. Antarctic Research Program, funded and managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF), maintains three research stations on the 5.5 million square mile continent: Palmer, a small station on a harbor of Anvers Island off the Antarctica Peninsula, and the only U.S. Antarctic station north of the Antarctic Circle; McMurdo, the largest station, built on Ross Island, the solid ground farthest south that is accessible by ship; and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which sits at the Earth's axis.

Miami researchers have had a long presence in the Antarctic, beginning with geochemist Bill Green, professor emeritus of interdisciplinary studies, more than 30 years ago.

Rachael Morgan-Kiss, “Team Protist,” Oct.-Dec., McMurdo Station

Rachael Morgan-Kiss, assistant professor of microbiology, with doctoral student Jenna Dohli and senior Nick Ketchum, arrived in late October at McMurdo Station, where they will stay through early December. Morgan-Kiss’ research focuses on single-celled microorganisms (protists) residing in the permanently ice-capped lakes in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

Protists have critical functions in aquatic food chains in energy flow and material cycling. They can act as primary producers - photoautotrophs (e.g. plants, fixing carbon by photosynthesis) - and as consumers. One goal of Morgan-Kiss’ project is to understand how abiotic (non living) drivers such as nutrient deprivation, limiting light conditions and low temperatures impact the distribution and nutritional mode of protists that are capable of switching between photoautotrophy and heterotrophy.

An overall goal of the project is to predict how future episodic climate events (e.g. climate warming, causing flooding) will impact protist trophic function (e.g. producers or consumers) in the Antarctic lakes.

Her research is supported by an NSF CAREER grant, which will support a research team of undergraduate and graduate students on three Antarctic field seasons over five years. She was also supported by an NSF grant for research (2007-2010) for the International Polar Year: Polar Night Project focusing on phytoplankton communities in Lake Bonney, one of the McMurdo lakes.

This is Dohli’s first expedition to Antarctica; and is Ketchum’s second — he joined Morgan-Kiss in her 2010 expedition.

“Team Protist” will divide time between the McMurdo station and small camps at field sites at Lake Fryxell and Lake Bonney.

McMurdo station has “a very extensive support network for doing scientific and field work of a very broad nature,” Morgan-Kiss said. “The Crary Science building has multiple state-of-the-art laboratories where we can perform almost any kind of experiment that we could do in our U.S. labs. Currently there are 1,200 people on base; approximately 400 of these are science people and the remainder are support staff. The cafeteria and dorm rooms are very full and busy.”

When not at McMurdo, the team camps at one of its two field sites — population three to six. They travel to the camps by helicopter, with them, about 2,000 pounds of instruments, tents, sleeping kits, food and science equipment.

Morgan-Kiss and Dohli have been interacting in real time through a blog with students in a new honors microbiology course. Read the blog and view photos online.

This is the first in a four-part series on Miami researchers in the Antarctic. Part Two highlights the Antarctic expeditions of Richard Lee, Distinguished Professor of Zoology, and first grade teacher Natalie Harr (Dec.-Feb.) at Palmer Station, Antarctica.

Read Part Two and Part Three,
Part Four.

Related Media

Photos Photos  
Rachael Morgan-Kiss, assistant professor of microbiology, walking towards the sampling hut on Lake Fryxell.
Rachael Morgan-Kiss, assistant professor of microbiology, and student Nick Ketchum inside the sampling hut on Lake Fryxell, taking a water sample through a hole in the ice.

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