Biodiversity: the Blog

Microscopes to telescopes: Back to UA Science Sky School

Last week I had the pleasure of returning to a mountain top where a not-so-little piece of my heart remains. It has been more than two years since I taught at UA Science: Sky School, a program I had piloted as a UA/NASA Space Grant Fellow starting in 2012-2014. I was amazed that despite the way the team and the current instructors have grown and improved the programs, it felt so much like going home. I loved sharing photos from my new research in Antarctica and helping students transform their cell phones into microscopes while they waited for their turn at the telescope.

This was the sixth annual trip for Flowing Wells High School, the first school to attend Sky School’s flagship four-day outdoor research experience, in which students stay in dorms at the observatory and are advised on team research projects by graduate students. The students from this Title I school are supported on their Sky School trip by a Superintendant who raises the money to fund their trip from his Rotary Club, and by teachers who organize and chaperone the four-day trip.

IMG_20180426_091420375And these students really deserve the support. The research on geology, hydrology, and biology in the national forest that they presented at the symposium the closing night of the program was impressive. They hiked for miles over thousands of feet of elevation change and learned new math and engineering skills to collect their data and design their equipment.

As the Arizona teachers wait at the capitol for a vote on a budget deal today, I hope the Governor and the Arizona Legislature understand just how much these teachers give up to support their students, but moreover, how much these students deserve more funding for infrastructure, supplies, and other pieces that make education work. I hope they find a way to raise and sustain the funding to make education not just less embarrassingly underfunded in Arizona, but a priority – not only when a walkout forces their hand, but on their own in the future.

Outdoor science: rock climbing edition

Part of my PhD was funded by the UA/NASA Space Grant to pilot and kickstart what became the UA Science Sky School. Our overnight programs, based at an observatory at the summit of Mt. Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains, allow K-12 classes to more deeply explore the world around them using the scientific method. Although I graduated and left Tucson two years ago, I continue to celebrate Sky School’s successes and community. This week, I am back in Tucson for a visit, and looking forward to spending some time at Sky School.

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At the March For Science Denver a week ago with another inaugural SkySchool instructor, Kirsten Neff. I’m wearing a superhero cape proclaiming my science superhero to be Sara Plummer Lemmon, the botanist and adventurer for whom Mt. Lemmon is named, in honor of her ascent over 100 years ago.

Mt. Lemmon is a beloved place for more than the observatory, though: there are over 2,000 rock climbing routes established on crags along the 30 mile Catalina Sky Highway that leads to the summit observatory. Since I developed into a regular climber in Tucson, Mt. Lemmon is my rock climbing home.

I have idly daydreamed about combining a Sky School type program with a climbing expedition for years now: outdoor science and engineering of technical skills and the natural world. You could study the mechanical physics of balancing yourself on a small hold or equalizing your anchor points for safety, as well as the geology of the rock quality and how the heck tiny plants are growing in cracks in the rock hundreds of feet off the ground.

So imagine my excitement to see a program launching to do just that up in Colorado! 9 high school girls will have the opportunity to spend 12 days with scientists and climbing guides in the first Girls On Rock expedition. I have been watching announcements of Inspiring Girls growing and expanding as an organization, and am stoked to see this newest program come together.

They want to offer this program free of charge to girls flying in from anywhere in the country!

So if you’re a teenage girl – get ready to apply.

If you know a teenage girl – encourage her to apply.

And if you want to see this program succeed and grow – donate to make this first run possible. I just did.

 

The Carolina Coast

Although it’s snowing over spring break in Boulder as I write this, a few weeks ago I had my sense of “spring” on the beaches of North Carolina’s barrier islands on the Intracoastal Waterway. My parents moved to Wilmington, NC, a few years ago. Although I miss visiting my childhood home in Salt Lake when I go see them, it’s great to see my extended family in that area, and to kayak through the spartina out to the islands, watching birds dive and dolphin pods cruise by.

I joke about my parents providing fully outfitted and nature-guided kayak tours for me, because they do. When we see the ibis perched along docks, my mom tells me their beaks and legs have already started to redden in anticipation of the mating season.

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My dad even pulled out a microscope they had bought so we could look for microscopic life amongst the spartina muck, where the fiddler crabs scuttle.

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The comment period on offshore drilling right there ended during my visit. We all submitted comments, along with half a million other people, raising our concerns about the potential impacts of seismic testing on dolphins and the nearly inevitable small leaks on the entire food chain, as well as on the microscopic life at the base of the food chain that supports the local seafood industry. (We kayaked to a dockside restaurant where I had fried oysters – local ones – for the first time. They were great!)

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Submitting one citizen comment to a federal agency feels a little like a drop in, well, the ocean. But half a million drops starts to add up to a measurable volume. More drops, and more momentum of those drops might make a difference, if not in preventing drilling then at least in ensuring drillers stick to best practices to have the least impact possible.

My mom always carries a bag over to the islands in her boat to pick up trash during her walk along the beach. Drip, drip, drop.

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Antarctica Season 2 Recap

It’s been two weeks since I returned from the ice, and I am still trying to get over a combination of jet lag, altitude, and flu. So I apologize if you are one of the many people to whom I owe an email response!

This was the second season of the cryoconite hole research project, in which we use mud puddles on glaciers as natural test tubes to study how ecosystems develop, and what determines their biodiversity and functioning. Here are some examples of cryoconite holes:

During our first season, we sampled cryoconite holes from three glaciers to better understand what lives in them, and what spatial patterns of biodiversity exist.

During this second season, our goal was more ambitious: to set up our own cryoconites, where we knew the starting mix of the ecosystem and could watch it evolve. Here is a montage of a few steps in that process:

You can learn more about the project, and check out our near-daily blog posts during the two-and-a-half-month season, at cryoholes.wordpress.com.

The short version of our season:

Over Thanksgiving weekend of 2017, most of our field team flew from Boulder or Portland to New Zealand, where we were issued cold weather gear and boarded a Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 for the 8+ hour flight to Antarctica in fairly close quarters (and you thought commercial coach was bad!).

Once on the ice, we prepared the sediments gathered from our field site to create our own cryoconite holes, and flew out to our field camp next to the glacier we work on.

Once in the field camp, we discovered the rumors were true: this was an abnormally snowy year in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Our experiment depended on having snow-free blue ice (which is pretty normal for summer there), so we took brooms and swept an area 500 square meters free of snow. Then it snowed again, so we swept again. And continued to repeat until we caught a break in the weather and set up our cryoconite holes.

Our little holes melted into the ice as planned, although for a shorter period than we hoped before it snowed again and they froze up. The critters were done growing for the season, so we collected samples from some and left the rest for next year. (The following photos are by Brendan Hodge.)

Back in McMurdo, we extracted DNA and chlorophyll from hundreds of samples, and shipped the remainders back to Colorado so we can repeat tests or do additional testing if necessary.

Along the way, our team explored breathtaking ice formations, mountain peaks, mosses, animals, McMurdo’s karaoke night, and more.

Meet Louis, the Louisville Library Water Bear

Pushing the frontiers of human knowledge through scientific discovery is a lot of hard work, but being curious and using real life observations to answer your questions doesn’t have to be.

Ever hear a claim of how conditioner will increase the thickness of your hair and think, “Yeah, right,” but be unable to test it out? If only you had a microscope you could use to measure the thickness of your hairs before and after using that conditioner….

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Which is why it’s great that some public libraries let patrons check out microscopes like a book for up to a week! The Louisville Public Library just bought two new scopes for families to check out.

During their monthly maker-space expo, which was science-themed for September, I had the opportunity to introduce visiting families to using the microscopes to look at some of my favorite Antarctic microscopic animals to spy on: tardigrades!

Tardigrades are microscopic animals that are famous for their ability to withstand drying out, freezing, and the vacuum of space. They are also kind of adorable, with common names like “water bear” and “moss piglet.” When placed on a glass or smooth plastic slide to be observed with a microscope, they appear to run in place, going nowhere fast.

I was scrolling through droplets of water and cyanobacteria, searching for a tardigrade to show visitors, when a kid showed some particular interest in the microscopes. I coached him through making his own slide with a water dropper and slide cover, then setting it on the microscope and moving it around. He was the one who found not only a neat ciliated protozoan, but finally got us a tardigrade to watch!

We named the tardigrade Louis after the Louisville Library. I didn’t take any video of Louis, but here is approximately what it looked like, from previous video I took of Antarctic tardigrades:

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Alpine cryoconite holes

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“Are you standing over a crevasse?” “No.” “Can we stop a moment? I need a picture of this mud puddle!”

Cryoconite is a fancy word for dirt on a glacier. Which is why my friend, Martin, who I was roped to on a Swiss glacier, seemed amused at how often I wanted to stop between jumping crevasses to excitedly photograph the mud puddles.

At one point he pointed out it’s basically the same dirt we had been hiking over beside the glacier that was blowing down onto the ice.

But the difference to me is how the bacteria and other microscopic life in that dirt change in their growth patterns with the addition of water. I study the microscopic life in cryoconite holes on Antarctic glaciers (see more about that project here). I was very excited to see cryoconite in a different part of the world.

Other groups are studying cryoconite on alpine glaciers, like these guys and these guys and these guys. This glacier looked very different than our study glaciers in Antarctica, partly because it was more of an entire debris field rather than isolated little islands of sediment, more like the cryoconite at the Alaskan site that my friend, Jack, just published a neat paper on.

Below you can see the difference between small, shallow, muddy cryoconite holes on the alpine glacier (left) and the larger, ice-lidded Antarctic holes that appear as dark circles of clearer blue ice (right).