Antarctic co-​​op: The mission

This is a guest blog post by Eileen Sheehan, a bio­chem­istry stu­dent at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity who is on co-​​op at Palmer Sta­tion, Antarc­tica. She will pro­viding a series of guest blog posts about her co-​​op expe­ri­ence.

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Me at Palmer Sta­tion. Photo cour­tesy of Eileen Sheehan.

My name is Eileen Sheehan, and I’m a junior bio­chem­istry stu­dent at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity.  I’m cur­rently doing my second co-​​op at Palmer Sta­tion, Antarc­tica under the super­vi­sion of William Det­rich, a marine biology and bio­chem­istry pro­fessor at North­eastern.  Down here in Antarc­tica, we’re researching some very unique fish species, specif­i­cally C. acer­atus, a white-​​blooded ice­fish, which lacks hemoglobin.

That’s right.  Even though they’re ver­te­brates, they have no red blood cells. Instead, oxygen is trans­ported through their bodies by being dis­solved in their plasma.  We also are researching dif­ferent red-​​blooded species such as N. cori­iceps.  They trans­port oxygen the normal way.

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C. acer­atus of mixed ages and gen­ders in their tank at Palmer Sta­tion. Photo cour­tesy of Eileen Sheehan.

Our project this Antarctic winter is focusing on how the warming Antarctic waters will affect the devel­op­ment of these dif­ferent fish species.  Our goal is to breed our fish and grow them at two dif­ferent tem­per­a­tures:  –1˚C and 5˚C.  Over the next two cen­turies, it’s actu­ally pre­dicted that the waters down here should warm that sig­nif­i­cantly.  As a result, it’s extremely cru­cial to under­stand pre­emp­tively what will happen to these fish.  We sus­pect that their devel­op­ment will speed up, leaving them to hatch in a season when the prey they feed on is scarce.  Unfor­tu­nately, this means that the larvae would most likely not sur­vive.                                 

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Pot fishing at Dall­mann Bay on the Lau­rence M. Gould research vessel. Photo cour­tesy of Eileen Sheehan.

In Antarc­tica, I’ve gotten to help on mul­tiple aspects of our project.  I’ve been fishing at Low Island and Dall­mann Bay to cap­ture our ice­fish and red-​​blooded fish.  I’ve lead fishing expe­di­tions on our zodiacs from the sta­tion to drop traps and cap­ture fish at dif­ferent life stages.  I’ve also used a plankton net to cap­ture some of the fish larvae in the sur­rounding areas.  Aside from fishing, I’ve been helping to manage the aquar­iums and set-​​up our cold room for our incu­ba­tors.  As we mon­itor our fish’s health, I also get to help with dis­sec­tions and sam­pling.  In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be working directly with Dr. Nathalie Le François from the Mon­treal BioDome to obtain eggs and sperm to create our genetic crosses (basi­cally when you breed a male and female to make babies).  From there, we will stay for the remainder of the winter (until October) to mon­itor the embryos’ devel­op­ment.  We hope to see our fish hatch before we leave to head home in October, allowing us to bring some sam­ples home to fur­ther our studies.

Trap fishing on the zodiacs outside of Palmer Station with undergraduate biology student Urjeet Khanwalkar at the bow

Trap fishing on the zodiacs out­side of Palmer Sta­tion with under­grad­uate biology stu­dent Urjeet Khan­walkar at the bow. Photo cour­tesy of Eileen Sheehan.

During my time here in Antarc­tica, I am aiming to post weekly blog posts to Northeastern’s iNSo­lu­tion blog.  Stay tuned for more inter­esting posts on the details of my research down here as well as all of the fun things we get to do for recre­ation!  Antarc­tica is cer­tainly a unique loca­tion to be con­ducting sci­en­tific exper­i­ments, and it’s an amazing expe­ri­ence that I can’t wait to share with you all.