We are a group of freshwater ecologists from the Biology Department at St. Catherine University in Saint Paul, Minnesota studying the effect of temperature and nutrient availability on metabolism and nitrogen fixation in geothermally active streams in the Hengill region of Iceland. This is a collaborative research effort with our partners from Montana State University, the University of Alabama, the University of Iceland, and the Institute of Freshwater Fisheries in Iceland. See links to our collaborators labs below.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Trip is Over, But the Journey Has Just Begun

Jill and Bayley with some
of our lab luggage
A successful final field day
in the Hengill watershed
We’re now back in Minnesota, with fond memories of Iceland a part of us and lots of data processing ahead of us. We have accomplished so much over the summer and now comes the work of processing samples and working to synthesize the findings from our field research efforts. We will present our research findings in the coming year, both on campus, and at national scientific conferences. It will be great to show our fellow Katies how much potential they too have for accomplishing significant scientific research, even in a short period of time.  I am personally excited to be able to share my experience with others and I can't wait take this project to the next stage and broaden my skills further as I prepare for a conference presentation.
Delor getting ready for a field incubation, adding gas to
the syringe...
           We have already discussed several upcoming conferences that would be appropriate venues in which to share our research results including the American Society for Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO), as well as the Society for Freshwater Science (SFS), which will meet next spring.  Both conferences will attract aquatic ecologists from around the globe.  The Ecological Society of America (ESA) will also hold a meeting next August right here in the Twin Cities. This meeting will feature work from a variety of ecologists - freshwater, marine, and terrestrial, and provide an opportunity for us to make broader connections with scientists working across ecosystems.  We are also excited to reconnect with our Iceland collaborators as we prepare for and travel to conferences to share results from the full scale collaborative project, and to make connections with ecologists working on similar questions.   This is especially important for me while I am looking towards graduate programs after my graduation from St. Kate’s at the end of the coming year.
              I can’t wait to see what the next year has in store for me.  The possibilities seem endless and I am excited to see how the impact of this experience continues to grow as I explore the data and the implications of our findings.  I knew that an international research experience would be unlike anything I had ever done before, but I didn’t know just how much of a positive impact this experience would have on my future as a scientist, and my career direction. 
...adding water to the syringe...
                 For me, it was great to be able to focus on a research problem in an intensive way and to be able to put all of my creative energy and effort toward this problem.   From something as small as reading a scientific paper, to something as big as orchestrating field work, my self-confidence has sky rocketed.  Research is not mysterious anymore.  At its core, it is critical thought, which is empowering. We can all be invested in this process if we choose to be. I don’t have to trust someone else’s answers to these questions; I can address them myself.  I will read scientific papers in a whole new way now, knowing that the final product does not reflect all of the challenges and day-to-day changes that are an innate part of the research process.   This understanding is difficult to attain in a classroom setting.  You can only get it from an immersed experience that is so interconnected with a variety of research goals, while maintaining the focus required to complete a complex research project.
...capping a chamber...
        Our project was extremely important because we were working with a process that no one else was studying in the watershed – nitrogen fixation. Not only were we able to gather an unprecedented data set with riveting conclusions, we were also able to strengthen the work of our collaborators working within the same system. This was a great outcome of our work, showing us what team work is really all about.   I also learned that in the ecological sciences, no one person can do it all!  It was a great experience to be connected to a larger goal, and it challenged us to continually be thinking about the landscape as a whole.    We made a great contribution to a large research effort that will help complete our understanding of not only freshwater streams in Iceland, but how temperature affects freshwater ecosystems in general, and in turn how global warming may change our environment. 
...and adding gas-saturated water to a chamber with Jill
                I feel ready to take this project to the next stage, and I’m so excited to see what other opportunities will unfold throughout the course of the year. Hopefully we will be able to go back to Iceland and continue exploring new questions in the Hengill watershed next year.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Sun Sets in Iceland

First summer sunset overlooking Reykjavik, just
outside the lab - we raced out to catch this photo.
Amazing how time flies!  When we arrived in Iceland at the beginning of July the sun was up most of the time, only setting for a few hours and the sunlight shined brightly through our windows in the late night hours.   It was exciting to see the activity in the city at night as Icelanders fully embraced the summer with outdoor concerts, festivals, gardening, and lots of spirit.  Our sleep cycles were certainly affected and it took some time to get used to sleeping when you should with the sunshine peeking through the blinds. We embraced the summer sun as well, appreciating the long days that allowed us to complete many field incubations in a single day, as they also depend on available light.  But, we learned too that the sun does set in Iceland and that you can’t readily incubate 20 chambers in a single day!  We did manage to do this once, but late into our overly ambitious day Bayley had to race the incubating chambers upstream to escape the growing shadow and shade that covered the lower portion of the stream as the sun began to duck behind the hillside.   The famous quote from that day was “twenty is too many”, and while we did it successfully, we all agreed that we shouldn’t embrace the illusion of a never ending day again. 

The group in Stokkseyri on the south coast of Iceland.  (right to left) Jim Hood,
Jon Olafsson, Jim Junker, Dan Nelson, Delor Sander,  Jill Welter,
Bayley Lawrence, (in front) Ryan McClure and Amanda Keasberry.
As the summer began to wind down, the days shortened quickly, almost as if overnight, with some of the most brilliant sunsets I have ever seen.  Maybe they were more spectacular because we hadn’t seen a full sunset in many weeks, or maybe the dramatic angle of the setting sun at our latitude made them more brilliant.  In either case, it was clear that summer was coming to an end and to the Icelanders that “winter is coming”, with short days, little sun, and still, lots of spirit and energy, and pride in the spectacular place that they live.    As the sun began to set, we also prepared to come home with a final celebration with our collaborators including students from Montana State University and the University of Alabama, Dr. Jim Hood (the project postdoc) and Dr. Jón Ólafsson from the Veiðimálastofnun (Iceland’s Institute for Freshwater Fisheries) and his family at Fjöruborðið in Stokkseyri on the South Coast of Iceland.  Fjöruborðið is renowned for its locally-sourced and homemade lobster soup, and it did not disappoint.  It was amazing and it was a wonderful time to celebrate the summer research accomplishments with our group.  We experienced the most beautiful drive down to the south coast, a wonderful exploration of the exposed tide pools, and yes, an amazing sunset.  

Our last sunset in Iceland - on the trip back from Stokkseyri.
A great end to a great summer!  photo by D. Sander.
The following day, the group began to head home, first with Dan and Amanda returning to Alabama, followed shortly by our group’s return to Minnesota, and finally the last group to Montana.   Amazingly, many in the group have connections to Minnesota, and we will see our collaborators here (likely at the Minnesota State Fair) and over the coming year at meetings and conferences.   I know that I have certainly developed a strong connection to Iceland, the people, the ecology, and the Hengill watershed, and it is hard to leave knowing that we have so much more to do and experience here.  It is a wonderful place!  But, while the sun is setting in Iceland and on our time in the Hengill streams for now, our work is really just beginning.  We have much sample processing and data analysis to complete in the coming year to finish our story and we are excited to see where this research will take us!  So, keep checking the blog for future updates.  Many thanks to all who helped to make this trip possible – it was all we imagined it would be and more!  And, we look forward to our future work on this project and hope to see more sunsets in Iceland as our research and collaboration develops!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Crunch Time...In So Many Ways!

Delor, Jill, and Bayley - last field day!
“Crunch time” represents our past few weeks in Iceland in numerous ways.  It has been time to focus intensively on our field work in an effort to complete our measurements on as many streams as possible before our departure, and time to crunch the data to begin to reveal what we have learned during our seven weeks here.   It has been too long since our last blog post, but we have been hard at work and things have been going very well.  But, very busy!  We have successfully measured nitrogen fixation rates on all of the dominant algal species (typically three or four different types, with 5-6 measurements for each species) on eight individual streams.  We also successfully used our two methods of measuring nitrogen fixation rates on almost all of these samples, which slowed down our progress across the landscape considerably, but we felt that this decision was a good one, as it will help us to evaluate these two methods and to better reveal to the field what each can tell us about nitrogen fixation measurements.  The data are also extremely exciting and a full data analysis indicates that nitrogen fixation rates in the warmest streams are an order of magnitude higher than the highest rates published in the stream scientific literature, which leads us to new questions about why rates are so high and what factors control nitrogen fixation rates in the Hengill streams.   We also observed high rates of nitrogen fixation rates at intermediate stream temperatures, while rates were extremely low and barely measureable in the coldest streams (~6 degrees Celsius).    We still have much work to do to fully complete our data analysis and to place these values into the context of the work of our collaborators here in Iceland, but it is certainly going to be exciting and very important for understanding how streams are responding to temperature across the landscape gradient.  There is also so much potential to expand the work we have started in ways that will contribute to our scientific understanding of the role that nitrogen fixation plays in river ecosystems, and how it influences the cycling of other biologically important elements, including carbon and phosphorus, and how these relationships are affected by changing temperature.

Delor and Jill with the gas chromatograph
in its new location.
While we started this work just a few months ago, we have learned a tremendous amount about these amazing rivers during our time here and everything has come together.  The gas chromatograph has run exceedingly well since its move to the new lab space, and we certainly feel that we have accomplished what we set out to do.  The diversity and complexity of the nitrogen-fixers that we encountered across the streams certainly kept us on our toes and required us to think creatively about how to approach our measurements every time we visited a new site.  It was not a “one approach fits all” situation, and we had to put our heads together every day to develop a plan that would capture nitrogen fixation rates in a rigorous and meaningful way.
Incredible day in the Hengill
fog and rain!
           The weather and the landscape also kept us vigilant, and at times storms kept us indoors when we wished we could continue our field survey.  During a day of record rain, we were able to visit the Hengill and watch our rivers flood, with spectacular waterfalls forming on the rocky hillsides, and the most beautiful fog drifting down and hugging the surrounding mountains.  It was one of our most incredible days in the field, despite the fact that the flood waters carried with it much of the nitrogen-fixers present in the rivers, whisking them downstream and possibly depositing them in nearby coastal and marine environments.    It was a strong reminder of the “reset button” that intense rainfall and episodic flooding provides in river ecosystems, and also got us thinking about the ultimate fate of the nitrogen that enters the rivers through nitrogen fixation – does it fuel more productivity and enter food webs that include insects and fish within rivers, as well as the surrounding terrestrial environment, or is it mostly deposited in marine areas where it may contribute to greater fertility and production there? And, does the fate of the nitrogen vary depending on the species of nitrogen-fixer and where it is located in the landscape?  These questions have important implications for understanding how this source of nitrogen is utilized in aquatic ecosystems, and how, where, and when it has important ecosystem consequences, and may provide future context for our work. 

Yes, it's a little windy and cold, but
just look at that view!  And, no black flies!
Of course, the intense precipitation also aggravated and activated the black flies, which came after us with a vengeance.  They were so intense that it was impossible to get photos that didn't have black flies on the camera lens, not to mention in your ears, eyes, and yes, in your mouth too.  While I suppose that I am not quite as excited about the black flies after this experience, they still did not detract from the wonder and beauty of this amazing place and all that we can learn here!  Going home will be bittersweet indeed, but at least our work is not done, and we will continue to analyze our samples and work with our Iceland collaborators to put the full story together.  We are very excited to see the complete results and to be able to share them and to begin looking toward the next chapter of this exciting project.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

There's No "I" in "Team" - or in "Research"

Amanda Keasberry and Dan Nelson
from the University of Alabama
Here in Iceland, we have quickly realized how reliant research is upon teamwork. The project began as a collaborative effort starting with Dr. Wyatt Cross from Montana State University, and Dr. Jon Benstead and Dr. Alex Huryn from the University of Alabama. Many of the students' work here in Iceland is contingent upon a grant written by these three scientists to investigate the effect temperature is having upon the biology of these streams. While we are here, we are working side by side with two students from Montana State University - Jim Junker and Ryan McClure. Jim is a Ph.D. student in Dr. Cross’s lab working on his dissertation. Ryan is an undergraduate in ecology. He has developed a set of experiments with Dr. Cross to assess the effect of temperature and food quality on snail growth rates, with an emphasis on stoichiometry. We are also fortunate enough to work with two students from the University of Alabama - Ph.D. student Dan Nelson and Amanda Keasberry.  Amanda is an undergraduate student from the Aquatic Biology program who is quantifying invertebrate respiration rates across a temperature regime to help with Dan’s work and to develop a project of her own. We were able to have a round-table discussion about the details of our projects the other day, and it was fascinating to see the areas of overlap with everyone’s projects, and how we will be able to use each other’s data to further our own progress.  There has been talk of papers written by students from different universities - an amazing outcome from our efforts here that exemplifies the importance of teamwork and collaboration.
Ryan McClure (left) and Jim Junker (right)
from Montana State University
It has been a valuable experience as a budding scientist to get a taste for the rigorous requirements of a graduate program by working with Jim and Dan.  Often, they will be working before we get to the lab and will stay long after we leave for the day – I’m beginning to wonder if they ever sleep!  Dan and Jim have both chosen a heavy work load for their dissertations and they are working together in order to collect all of the data they will need to test their hypotheses.  They are even doing an experiment using a heat exchanger that will warm up one of the streams so they can directly see the impact of temperature on one particularstream community. By seeing their efforts, it has shown me the level of commitment you need to have to excel in the demanding field of ecosystem science, and also how collaborative the work is.
It is amazing to see how much drive and passion all of the students have for this area of work, and it inspires me to work even harder and to be a better scientist. I have come to realize through this experience that, even though we are all from different areas of the United States, these scientists are people just like me. It has been a great confidence boost knowing that I can fit in and be a valuable team member with a group that is accomplishing so many things from such diverse backgrounds. It has been enjoyable to see the impact of professors, postdoctoral researchers, Ph.D students, and undergraduates on a project, as well as how different universities can work together to achieve similar goals. The researchers at the Veiðimálastofnun, the lab where we are able to work, are very accommodating and help us find the space and resources we need to complete our work. Without them, it would be nearly impossible for us to accomplish this work, which will help with some research questions they have about the Hengill watershed as well.

(from left to right) Dan, Ryan, Bayley, Amanda,
and Jim enjoying  the scenery in Iceland
We are fortunate to be in contact with so many people who care so deeply about the questions that can be answered at this unique work site. It is a great introduction for me into the research field, as well as to ecosystem science. So far, it has been the experience of a lifetime - one that I could have only had working alongside new people in an environment that was foreign to me. It has made me push myself to try new things and ask more questions, and it has made me comfortable with many of the leadership responsibilities that come with being part of a research team. I am extremely grateful for the people who have helped to make this happen, and I can’t wait to pass on the experience and knowledge I will gain as part of this process to my classmates back at home.