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, October 4, 2017

What makes a data point?

As a student, especially in the sciences, I've spent hours reading scientific papers. Each paper is composed of an abstract, introduction, methods, results, and discussion. One thing I've learned over the years is that figures have the power to provide resolute understanding or utter confusion. Yet each paper that is published and each figure that resides within it is meticulously designed and revised. Regardless of who reads the paper, the audience should be able to gleam a big picture view of the results. That's the beauty of a figure. It's able to convert chaotic datasets full of numbers into elegant and informative visuals.

Figures are meant to be clean, simple, precise, and minimalist. However, readers often forget to acknowledge the hundreds of hours required to produce that single figure. A figure is not just created, it is a culmination of intense work. At the end of this summer when we start analyzing our samples and datasets, it will be satisfying to see all our efforts displayed as a figure. But, it will be just as astonishing that all our work can and will be portrayed in a few figures. Each data point will be the product of a team of people who dedicated hours to acquire that single number.

For example, when determining nitrogen fixation rates we need to travel to Hengill, carry our field gear to the sampling site, set up our incubations, collect and preserve our samples, analyze our samples, process the data, and finally produce a figure. Each of these steps requires lots of time and effort, all for a single data point. Now multiply that work load by adding other components of the core project as well as other side projects and the to do list becomes endless. As we work day in and day out and continue to push on every day it reminds me to applaud the scientists before me and truly appreciate what they have done. 

We are relentless workers. Our work hours are not bound by 9 to 5, 40 hour weeks, but rather by how long our bodies are capable of persisting. Although we may want to yell into the sky in frustration or collapse from exhaustion, we do it because we love it. We strive to explore and explain the unknown and to do that we work tirelessly for that data point. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

I Love Cyanotoxins!

I love working in Hengill!
It’s been great to be back in Iceland for another summer field work. I have returned with experience, many new questions and never-ending curiosity. In my time since last summer, I completed my senior year at St. Kate’s during which I had the incredible opportunity to work with Dr. Welter to continue research on the Iceland project. During the year I explored the effects of temperature on the biodiversity of algal communities. During my spring semester, I also developed a strong interest in cyanotoxins. Cyanotoxins are secondary metabolites produced by some cyanobacteria that are harmful to human health. The more I learned about these toxins, the more I wanted to know. I found out that while there has been a lot of research on cyanotoxins, there are still many questions and uncertainties surrounding them.

Samples of cyanobacteria
The project effort currently underway in Hengill utilizes the natural temperature gradient present across multiple streams to understand how stream communities and processes are affected by temperature. As I read more about how cyanotoxin production is strongly influenced by nutrients and temperature, I realized that this Iceland field site might be a great place to gain a better understanding of cyanotoxins. If any cyanotoxins are detected in Hengill, these streams could provide insight into how toxin production changes along a temperature gradient in stream ecosystems. 

In the time between sample processing, lab work and long field days, I have been developing ideas on how to best collect samples and test for cyanotoxins across a temperature gradient. There are many kinds of cyanotoxins and they can be produced by many different species of cyanobacteria. Trying to understand the details of cyanotoxins can seem overwhelming at times but it’s also what I find intriguing about them and is what motivates me to keep learning more. Regardless of what my samples amount to, I know this experience is helping me become a better scientist. I don’t see my interest in cyanotoxins fading anytime soon and I hope to have to opportunity to study them more in the future. 💚💚💚💚💚💚💚💚💚💚

Sunday, July 23, 2017

It's the little things

I love my job as an ecologist. I get to travel, conduct research, collaborate, all in the beauty of the landscape! However, my job, as with any job, isn't always a ray of sunshine. In fact, many times my job as a field ecologist brings extreme challenges and tedious tasks. For example, it can be really mentally and physically draining when you have an 8-10 hour field day with constant rain and winds. You get soaked, cold, and grumpy. It's in these moments where I remember to appreciate and find happiness in the little things. It's the little things that provide the extra boost of motivation to keep going. 

A chamber capped on the first try!

The perfect scoop of Nostoc!

An ARA balloon inflated just right!

Perfect parallel tape of a scintillation vial!
A good standard curve on the first try!
No algae in the MIMS samples!
Field chocolate ... field chocolate
The wind that blows away all the bugs!
1000 mL measured in a single pour!
The little sheep watching from the hill.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Adventures on an island off an island

Yesterday was only my 4th day in Iceland but we were already off on our first field trip excursion. It was a beautiful sunny day and we headed to Haimey, one of the Westman Islands, an archipelago off the southwest coast, for some hiking, sight-seeing, and birding. We had an early 7 am start from Reykjavik (which wasn't too bad considering the sun had been up since 3) and headed south to catch our ferry. After a scenic drive through Iceland and a short 30 minute ferry ride, we arrived at port. 

The small city is home to around 4500 residents and is surrounded by cliffs and two volcanic mountains, Helgafell and Eldfell. After a quick stop at Krónan to grab lunch, we began our hike up Eldfell. Eldfell last erupted in 1973 and is the youngest volcanic mountain in the world. The hardest part of hiking a volcano is the loose soil resulting in a two steps forward, one step back effect. At the top of the mountain we had a panoramic view of the island with cliffs on one side and the city on the other.

After Eldfell, we followed a random trail and discovered a cave! After taking some photos and pretending to be in Lord of the Rings, we began the most anticipated part of our trip, the search for puffins! Iceland has the largest population of puffins in the world and the Westman Islands are home to some of the largest colonies as well. With this in mind, we had high hopes. 

After a few hours of walking along the coast and peaking over cliffs we finally spotted our puffins! Small relative to the gulls and massive cliffs, the puffins zipped around the waves as tiny black specks. We spent the next couple hours sitting by the cliffs and enjoyed the scenic views. Once we returned to town, we followed the loud music coming from the center of the city and stumbled upon a celebration of Sjómannadagurinn (Sailor's Day). Celebrated throughout all the coastal towns of Iceland, the first weekend of June is dedicated to honor those who work at sea and in fisheries. My favorite event during the festival was the pillow fights. Historically used as a test of manhood, the pillow fight involves stepping out onto a plank overhanging the port and fighting until one of the players falls into the icy cold water below. 

Once we arrived back to the mainland, we had a quick drive before we arrived at our next site, the Beglengd Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. Standing at 75 meters, the waterfall cascaded over the edge of the plateau. The best part of this waterfall was that we could walk behind it! Following the path along the side, we ventured behind the waterfall for amazing views of the waterfall, rainbows, and some splashes of water. Overall, we had an amazing day exploring the island and experiencing the local culture. I can't wait to explore more of Iceland throughout the rest of the summer. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Getting Settled In & Set Up

Hello! I’m Marie and I am a St. Catherine’s undergraduate student starting my junior year this fall. I am new to the Iceland team, and this is my first research position. I’m sure I will have a lot of new and challenging experiences this summer. So far, we have been doing a lot of preparation for the field and getting the lab set up for our work. The lab we are working in now is different than the one last summer, so we have been trying to figure out where our equipment can go (and we have a lot of stuff!). We are finding space for the gas chromatograph which is challenging because the people we are working with are getting set up as well (they just moved too!) The lab is in the heart of Reykjavik, right across from the Harpa, and there is a huge mural of a fisherman on the side of the building.
The view outside of our lab.
The mural on the side of the lab.
We have been weighing a lot of filter papers and tins, which should make our lives easier later in the summer. To do that, we had to set up the scale, which was a good learning experience for me as I had never done that before. We have weighed over 600 filters and 200 tins so far, and we will need to weigh more before the summer is over!
Look at all the filters and tins!
Annette and I also worked on repairing the fans. We have magnets attached to the fans so that when they spin they rotate a stir bar in a chamber to mix the contents continually. The silicone sealant we used was from last summer, so we had to battle to get the tip cleared, but we did it! A lot of what we have been doing so far is setting the foundation for the rest of the summer, so while pictures of what we are doing now may not be as stunning as field photos, it is important work.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ecologist in Training

Our last season of fieldwork is over but its benefits persist. I miss Iceland and its beauty, but with good memories, I am eagerly working with some of the data. Last summer in Iceland was an incredible experience and gave me the opportunity to grow as a student and a scientist. It gave me the chance to explore new ideas, meet great people and experience a different culture. The intense combination of lab and fieldwork was a good reminder of nature’s complexity and the effort it takes to understand it. It was rewarding to watch the samples and data accumulate over the summer. Every task requires full attention whether it be weighing filters, carefully pipetting or organizing field equipment. It helps to always keep the overall goals in mind because it fuels the motivation to do my best work.
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Measuring nitrogen fixation on a rainy day
I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the hard work that goes into scientific studies like this one. The work that we do requires a lot of patience and optimism. Shaking chambers of algae in the wind and rain may not sound ideal, but having a fun team that can always make you laugh makes all the difference. Everyone had good advice to offer and I did my best to absorb all the information I could. They encouraged me to be confident in my abilities and helped me to better understand my strengths and weaknesses. It could get overwhelming at times with so many long days and a never-ending to-do list, but with support and encouragement from the team, it didn’t seem too bad. I loved working with such great people!

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Working at the channels
I had fun learning the stream ecology methods used in the field and in the lab. My interest in ecological areas of study like biodiversity and nutrient cycling continues to grow and I find that the more I learn the more I want to know. I began last summer with a lot of uncertainty about where I saw myself in the future, but by the end I could picture myself working with confidence on a similar project. I feel like I’ve found my place within my biology degree and I’m very thankful for this amazing opportunity.