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.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Tetris and a New Technique

Filtering apparatus
After we returned to the city, cleaned up, and filled out stomachs, we started our work in the lab. The first order of business was to get our gas samples run on the gas chromatograph (GC) as soon as possible. While those were being run, Jackie and I got to work getting our samples preserved and ready to take home. 
Top: a photo of our equipment that needed to be packed
Bottom:Tetris, a tile-matching video game
 (Image from www.tetris.com)
In order to get the biomass from our sample bottles (which is mostly a solution of water and algae) we had to pipette specific amounts of solution out and onto a filtering apparatus that removes all the water from the sample, leaving just the biomass on a filter.  Those samples were brought home where they will help us unlock some of the elemental mysteries and to help further tell the story of the nitrogen-fixers in Hengill. Our final days in the lab were spent rearranging and organizing the bins full of supplies and field equipment that we brought home with us. In order to keep our bags and bins from being overweight, we had to move and position items in such a way so that we could maximize space without overloading them. We lovingly call this “playing Tetris” (Video of Tetris: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X91_x7ReYyM).  Once we arrived home, before we could do anything with our samples, we had to clean the lab out from top to bottom. Now it’s ready for us to do our work. Starting sometime within the coming week, I will begin working on elemental analysis of our samples; a new technique that I am eager and excited to learn and put into practice.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Experimenting with Photography and Capturing Science

A moment of perfect light with a beautiful backdrop.
Before I left last summer for Iceland, I decided to make an investment in a quality camera. It’s something I’ve always wanted to buy, and I finally had the perfect excuse. Over the course of the summer I developed a new love for photography and what it can mean. I took my time trying different angles, using different amounts of light in the photo and experimenting with the settings on my camera. I realized that the best photography teacher for me was myself and my own experimentation.
Guttation: close up of a small plant on the ground.

Sometimes I could plan for a particular photo and really anticipate how it would turn out; but, often I was wrong. Some of my favorite photos are ones that I took spontaneously out of pure inspiration in a simple moment with no plan or expectation.  I remember one day I was out in the field and the air felt very heavy with water that day.  A slight mist was falling across the landscape. I was hiking up a hill and very carefully watching my feet when I began to notice that the tiny little plants were covered with big glossy drops of water. Upon closer examination, I realized that these plants were not covered in dew, but the water was actually escaping from the tips of the leaves traveling all the way up through the xylem from the roots, through the stems, and finally into the leaves where tiny pores are found called stomata. These pores are typically used for gas exchange during photosynthesis, and allow for evaporation of water molecules as a cooling mechanism for the plants - much like we sweat through our pores.  However, on some occasions, when the conditions are right, and the air is heavy with moisture,  the pressure of water entering the roots is enough to push water molecules all the way up to the top of these tiny plants and out through their pores in a process called guttation; forming water droplets on the leaves that can be mistaken as dew.

Top: A picture of a geothermal hot pot and the
landscape under a low sun.
Bottom: A close up
 of the water
 frozen in rings around where

hot bubbles of water escape in the middle
To some extent, the way I approach photography is similar to the way I approach scientific research. I see some phenomenon, draw in closer and investigate, zoom in with my macro lens, and find the small details that are often unnoticed and hidden. I like to catch the small details of an object up close and personal. But, then sometimes when you get too buried in the details, you have to zoom back out and take a look at the big picture. This is true in our research as well.  At times, we need to focus in on small details and mechanisms at work, like the factors that influence what happens inside a small cell or the movement of molecules.  But, at the same time, we have to remind ourselves of the larger goal and our broader questions - and how the ecosystem works as a whole. This is similar to when I’ve really zoomed in on a small detail of a plant, or building, and at first glance you can’t always tell what it is, but when I step back and take a picture of the whole, sometimes the view is just as detailed and spectacular and reveals the whole story.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Not So Modern, Not So Convenient, But So Worth It

Instant mash potatoes made by flashlight.
It seems like only last week were in Iceland and out in the field doing research. Since we have been back, I have spent some time reflecting on how easy and convenient many of our modern technologies make our lives. When we were living in the cabin, we had no running water, no electricity, and a minimal source of heat. Most evenings were spent wearing a headlamp and occasionally sitting in front of the small fireplace to warm up a bit in between scraping rocks.  There were even occasions where I would turn off my headlamp when sitting by the fire and then would get up and think, ‘who turned off the lights’ when noticing how dark it had become. After having this experience, I’ve appreciated how much I depend on electricity, and how easy it is to turn on a light when I enter a room.
A small fire - our main heat source.

I have also gained a new appreciation for running water. When we needed more water, we had to hike to a stream to fill our water bottles for drinking and cooking, and when we needed water to wash dishes, we had to boil snow so we didn’t waste our drinking water.  I also learned to conserve water and I now think about how much water I waste in a day. For example, when I want a drink of water, I usually let the faucet run until it feels cold, and similarly, when I go to take a shower, I let the water run until it feels hot. It has also made me think about all the times I drink half a glass of water and dump out the rest of it. I definitely appreciate this convenience now and I am humbled to have had this experience. It’s one thing to think about how many people live or have lived without running water and be sympathetic towards that, but it’s another to experience it first hand. 
Wearing all of our essential gear.  Yes, it was super windy!

Indoor heating is another convenience that I’ve come to appreciate. Having lived in Minnesota my whole life, I thought I knew what it meant to be cold; however, what I didn’t know, was what it meant to be out in the cold all the time. By the end of the week, it wasn’t clear if it had really warmed up, or if we were just used to being in the cold. The time that I usually felt the most warm was during the hour walk each day to and from the field site. Most days I was wearing four layers consisting of a base layer, multiple fleece layers and a water proof shell on both the top and bottom half. I also usually doubled up on wool socks to keep my feet warm and dry.  I was most grateful to have packed my ski goggles, which kept blowing snow out of my eyes, my face mask, which kept my face and nose warm, my sleeping bag, which is rated for 20 F temperatures, and instant heat packs, which helped us out in more than one occasion when we underestimated the impact of being cold and wet. Of course there were other items that I wished I had brought with us, but overall, we had the essentials covered. Even though the conditions were tough at times, and we had to persevere when we were tired and uncomfortable, it was an experience that I wouldn’t trade. I would go back and do it again in a heartbeat.

The Bare Necessities of Life Will Come to You

The University of Iceland's amazing truck.
The moment the super truck pulled up, I knew our week in the mountains was going to be an extraordinary adventure. The ride out to Hengill was a new experience, to say the least. Once we veered off the main road, we were faced with a huge snowdrift that seemed almost impassable; but, we managed to get through it.   The trip was especially challenging since it had just snowed and the conditions prevented the snow from solidifying.  Sveinbjörn Steinþórsson informed us that the snow was like “powdered sugar” in the sense that it was difficult for the tires to get traction on such a soft and grainy surface.  Due to this, we had to dig the truck out a few times.  To avoid further shoveling, we then took an amazing detour up the side of the mountain, which allowed us to see a completely new part of Hengill.
            Upon arrival to our new home away from home, we quickly realized that we were not in the city anymore. This cabin had no electricity or running water. Thankfully, it did have a fireplace and a diesel heater. We spent the rest of our first day acclimating to our new environment and getting our gear organized. I became well aware of the luxuries we are accustomed to at home when I had to put my boots on and walked 50 yards just to go to the bathroom or boiled snow on a propane powered stove just to make oatmeal - all with my heavy mittens on!  It truly hit me when we had to cut wood by hand for firewood just to stay warm - if we didn't keep cutting wood when the pile got low,no matter the hour, we would have no warmth.  Life became about necessity and not accessory, but it was the greatest feeling in the world.
Nostoc pruniforme,
 found in stream 9 under 5 feet of snow!
            The first full day started by crawling out of our sleeping bags pretending that it wasn’t as cold as we thought as we began to boil water for our breakfast. We then headed off on our first hike to our field site. It was amazing to see the landscape that I had worked in for months over the summer so completely changed by the snow. It took a while to become adjusted to the new landscape. This daily hike took about 45 minutes and consisted of hill climbing and high stepping- an excellent workout, I can assure you. Due to the “powdered sugar” effect, every step resulted in a deep plunge into the fresh snow or, sometimes, breaking through into a deep hole.  It was quite an adventure and mystery as to which we would get with each step.  This day consisted of finding the different streams we were going to be working in over the coming week. We found the warm streams fairly easily, but stream 9, a was completely covered with 5 feet of snow.  Stream 10, just over the hill from stream 9, was partially open, but we still had to dig a section of it out from under a few feet of snow. We found a photosynthetic nitrogen-fixer - Nostoc pruniforme, in both streams, covered by snow, healthy and in abundance. Interesting indeed.

Setting up chambers on stream 10 with Dan Nelson.
            Now that we knew where to find our nitrogen fixers, our second day became our first sampling day. We started  with stream 10, and began by hunting down rocks to be used in our chambers. This was accomplished by digging small tunnels down to the stream bed and climbing down with headlamps to find representative samples, all while being careful not to collapse the snow tunnel or fall through accidentally. 

Hiking back after dusk; just enough light for a photo.
Working in these streams over the summer, we didn’t have to worry about our fingers getting too cold, but it became one of our primary concerns working in stream 10, where the water temperature was just above freezing.  In order to keep our hands from being exposed to the cold water and the cold air, we used extremely fashionable dish washing gloves.  While not extremely comfortable, the gloves did keep our hands dry and much warmer overall.  We finished our sampling at dusk, which meant our hike back was going to be a dark one.  The already slightly risky hike was now even more treacherous due to the fact that we could only see what was directly illuminated by our headlamps.   But, we always made it back safely and enjoyed the view of the brilliant night sky as we walked.  

Upon arrival back to the cabin, we started scraping the algae off of the rocks that we had collected earlier. I was given a new found appreciation for doing this type of work in a controlled lab environment that has an abundance of light and warmth.
A new challenge: rock scraping by headlamp.
The longest hike of the trip happened on our third day. We walked all the way to stream 11. This was also our longest sampling day. We collected samples from two different parts of stream 11 - some from under deep snow and some that were uncovered and exposed. This allowed us to stay relatively warm due to the constant hiking up and down a steep hill. The beginning of the day started off with mixed precipitation of rain and snow, but it cleared up a short time afterwards. It was definitely a long hike back with a backpack full of rocks, but it made sitting in front of the fire much more rewarding. Finally the raging winds had settled down and we were able to utilize both the fireplace and the heater. The cabin was raging hot by the end of the night, reaching temperatures of 7°C (~45°F).

Beautiful wide open stream 6!
        The fourth day we sampled stream 6. The hike there took the least amount of time; we were there well before sunrise. We had plenty of time to look around and find rocks for sampling. Stream 6 was by far the easiest stream to sample because it is completely open, flat, and warm. By this time, we were a well-oiled machine, but cabin fever was starting to set in and I was in desperate need of a shower. On the hike back, we had a moment of adrenaline.  We were walking across a previously solid patch of snow and the next moment, we found Jackie hanging by her elbows in a hole that just appeared under her feet. After pulling her out of the hole, we realized that we had been walking across a ravine without even knowing it. After much laughing as the adrenaline rush subsided, we found out that Jackie wasn't in any real danger - her feet were only few inches from the ground, but it was an exciting moment to be sure.
My masterpiece!
Our final day we took on stream 9. At the end of the week, it had warmed up by a few degrees and the snow had started to melt. Land that was completely covered by snow a few days ago was now uncovered. However, stream 9 was still covered by a solid 5 feet of snow. We began by digging holes down to the stream to collect rocks for sampling. Once we began our incubation, we had a few minutes to enjoy the snow.  I made a little snow castle using a pitcher to form snow blocks. Once our incubations were done, we began our final hike back to the cabin. Shortly after sunset, Sveinbjörn showed up to take us back into town. I cannot explain to you the odd feeling we all had riding in a vehicle for the first time in a week. It was an incredibly strange feeling to be moving without having to walk on your own legs, but the strangest feeling by far was being warm.
Jackie and I on our final hike back to the cabin.
Upon arrival back to civilization, we headed back to our apartment where we all rushed to take long hot showers and then feast on food that wasn’t warmed by water. It was an incredible week out in the cabin; an experience that I miss today. It was remarkable to live so simply and be completely dependent on each other. While we were out there, I did miss having a cell phone, heat, electricity, and running water, but I realized that I didn’t need them to survive - and how satisfying it was to live without these luxuries, even for just a week.  This experience continues to have a long lasting impact on my priorities and how I view my own resource use.  I continue to use the lights less and the stairs more!  I am more in tune with what I need, what's important, and what I can accomplish.