We are a group of freshwater ecologists from the Biology Department at St. Catherine University in Saint Paul, Minnesota studying the effect of temperature on nitrogen fixation rates in geothermally active streams in the Hengill region of Iceland. This is a collaborative research effort involving several universities in the U.S., the University of Iceland, and the Institute of Freshwater Fisheries in Iceland. See links to our collaborators labs below.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Transition, Translation, and Transformation

            The academic regimen is composed of transitions: from major to major, class to class, topic to topic, and in my case, from lakes to streams. I was introduced to the Welter lab in the summer of 2014 on a Minnesota lake project. After a lovely summer in the field, we have analyzed exciting and novel results! I thoroughly enjoyed the research process from designing a project, working hard long days in the field, all the way to the analysis of results! 
            I am continuing this process as a new collaborator with the work in Iceland. This opportunity will allow me to engage on a professional level and experience the entirety of the scientific process. I have fallen in love with the highs and lows of the research experience and am eager to continue to collect data and answer globally important questions. I have transitioned into preparatory work for our summer 2015 research in Icelandic streams. The transition has been smooth, as both of my aquatic ecology research projects have some parallels in methodology and nutrient cycling dynamics, but strike contrast in flow velocity. This exciting new challenge adds a twist to my familiarity of the low flow associated with lakes. In my transition to streams, I have researched, proposed and developed a project, which includes looking at how metabolism and nitrogen fixation of both nitrogen fixing and non-nitrogen fixing organisms vary over a temperature gradient. I am excited to continue learning, and growing as a research scientist! 


Icelandic proverb: Af gódu upphafi vonast góður endir.

English translation: A good beginning makes a good ending.

Drilling holes in incubation chambers
            Dr. Jill Welter and I are currently funded through St. Catherine University’s Assistantship Mentoring Program. With this funding I have had a jumpstart on writing my proposal, learning laboratory procedures, and constructing field supplies necessary for the Iceland stream project. I am so appreciative and grateful for the time and effort I have been able to put forth towards this research endeavor.
            Like the process of translation, the comprehension and understanding of such a rigorous and intense project takes time, hard work, and patience. This academic semester I have gained confidence in reading and analyzing scientific literature pertaining to stream ecology, familiarity to essential laboratory techniques, and project methodology and logistics. The research preparatory process has been vital in my comprehensive and quantitative reasoning skills that will be useful in the data collection and sample analysis days to come. It has been a good beginning, and I am excited to flow through this journey into the world of stream ecology.


Nine bins and counting...
Iceland provides a unique, natural, ecological laboratory useful to research the effects of increased stream temperature on biological processes and species composition. The Iceland stream project has been, and continues to be transformative in ecological science. With an increase in average global temperature at the forefront of ecological concern, this project will broaden our knowledge on how temperature change may affect biological processes in a variety of ecosystems. Not only is this work transforming the field of ecosystem ecology, but that of my undergraduate research experience. Already, I have been transformed. I have gained the assurance to take initiative and to formulate and question ideas central to the field of freshwater aquatic ecology. I am greatly looking forward to witnessing all that Iceland has to offer, and the adventures and transformations to come! Our bins are packed, our flights are booked, and we are ready for research - hopefully Iceland is ready for us! 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Back on the Road to Research

In the middle of this cold snap, it is hard not to be excited for the season to change. For many people, May feels like a lifetime away as we anxiously await summer’s longer days and warmer weather. As winter drags to an end, this time can feel like an eternity. For research scientists, this time can go by quickly when preparing for a busy field season.

Getting all of our "ducks in a row" takes time!
Photo Credit: Jackie Goldschmidt 2013 
I am a St. Kate’s graduate who was lucky enough to travel to Iceland three years ago in the summer of 2012 as a student. The experience was unlike any other, landing in Iceland with crates of supplies and making a home for ourselves with the help of the generous staff of the Veiðimálastofnun and the University of Iceland. Now, our presence has been felt in the “Smoky Bay” for three years and we have cultivated friendships with our collaborative groups from both the United States and Iceland. Coming back to work on this project is the definition of a dream come true for me. I began work in the Welter lab again in October 2014, and in many ways it feels like I never left… until I look at the data we have amassed in my absence. It is truly amazing to see what my peers were able to accomplish as undergraduates, and to see how the project has developed in the past few years. Dr. Welter has worked hard with our collaborators to earn funding to continue training budding scientists in this timely, relevant project which will help us understand how stream ecosystems respond to climate warming. We have seen a few publications come out from our group already, and have many more planned!

Visions of an Icelandic Summer
Photo Credit: Jackie Goldschmidt 2013
Here in Minnesota, we are continuing the legacy that Dr. Welter has fought so hard to bring to her lab and to St. Kate’s. We are so lucky to have access to hands-on field research opportunities, and the students involved have always taken this to the next step, presenting posters and talks to communicate their findings. This summer, I will be working with Dr. Welter and Bree Vculek, a St. Kate’s undergraduate student. Bree has already experienced field work in lakes, and has proven to be a tenacious scientist. Her work on the Iceland project will undoubtedly be an impressive chapter in our legacy. Stay tuned for blogs on Bree’s perspective of our work.

More posts to come regularly, so keep an eye on us and you will see just how amazing the research process is. We will have suspense, intrigue, heartache, and ultimately the euphoria that comes with collecting publishable data. I hope you enjoy all of the great things we will accomplish this summer, and beyond!

Monday, May 5, 2014

[Insert Catchy Title Here] - A Call to All Scientists

St. Kate's Students and Faculty at NCUR
Recently I had the opportunity to present the results from our research at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in Lexington, Kentucky. The conference hosted a wide range of subjects including fields from the arts, sciences, business, and social sciences, among many others. The conference lasted three days with multiple presentations occurring at the same time and ongoing most of the day from 9 am until 7 pm. With so many presentations, it was clear that I could not make it to all of them. This being the case, I tended to choose talks based on the only information I had - location and title. Reflecting back on this, I realize how little, or how much, a title can tell you about a presentation.

Excited for our plane ride
One aspect of my process in choosing presentations has stood out to me - I chose what I thought was interesting. This seems trivial. Of course, naturally I would choose to listen to a subject that grabbed my attention. However, I found myself at a fair number of non-science talks. Upon consideration, I had to ask myself, was I avoiding the scientific subjects? I didn't think this was the case though and I knew that it wasn't from a lack of interest in scientific research. It was then that I realized that the subject wasn't the issue, it was the lack of a draw in the titles. The titles of scientific talks were dry, often because they had to save room in the title for organism names, gene names, site locations, or other scientific jargon. While practical, this has the disadvantage of deterring the interest of almost all non-scientists and even some of the science-oriented attendees. It’s important to have an informative title; however, I think a larger focus should be placed on accessibility to the subject.  It should draw you in...

Scientific literature, articles, and research reports are usually written in a cut and dry manner that strives to merely present the data in an unbiased and unopinionated voice. The main goal is to report what was measured, how it was measured, how many times it was measured, and how the data compare with other values reported in the literature as a validation of the results. While this is practical and efficient, it is often inaccessible to most people outside of the field. I’m not suggesting a revolution in scientific literature, but rather ask how can scientists compensate for this gap - who is getting to use all of this valuable information? The non-scientist is unlikely to sit down and read scientific literature. It’s too dense and unfamiliar. This being the case, I think we need to reevaluate how scientific data is reported, explore how to broaden public access to the results, and make them meaningful and exciting to everyone - because, after all, they are exciting!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Presenting our Work at the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR)

Getting excited to give my talk!
After weeks of preparation, we were off to Lexington, Kentucky for the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR). This conference showcases the amazing research that undergraduates are doing all across the country and even all over the world.
We arrived in Lexington to a cool breeze, which was a nice change from the snow we left in Minnesota. We were up at 7 am to head off to the conference for our first day of presentations. It goes without saying that most of us were fairly nervous about our presentations, not only giving them in general, but to give them in front of complete strangers.
I am willing to admit that I was extremely nervous to give my talk, but after practicing it a few times, I felt confident in giving it.

Describing the important role nitrogenase plays in nitrogen fixation
It was nerve-racking, but once I was done, it felt amazing to have given that kind of a talk; another thing I would have never done had I never been a part of this research. This research experience has definitely given me the confidence I need to do these types of things now without hesitation.  I am extremely thankful for these opportunities. Now we are turning our attention to our next conference in Portland, Oregon this coming May, where both Jackie and I will be presenting posters - but this time we will be presenting our work to an international audience of aquatic scientists.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lightening the Load

Rock covered in algae - all of which will be scraped off.
Then, the rock can be traced.
Even though we’re not in Iceland, we are hard at work here in Minnesota. For the last few weeks, I have been working on entering data into Microsoft Excel, and Aimee and I have been working with samples and data from the trip. As astute ecologists, we often wonder if we are measuring the most accurate number and getting accurate values for nitrogen fixation rates. Once we know how to make the measurements for nitrogen fixation, it becomes easy to slip into the habit of trusting the values we get from our data. However, being the perfectionists we are, we have learned otherwise. Our work is simply not done once we return from the field site, nor is it done after several days of lab work. Measuring nitrogen fixation, or any biological process, involves consistency in the field work and the lab work, and ensuring that we have all of the information we need to draw the right conclusions from our data.

Recently I have taken on the task of calculating the surface area of rocks that we pulled from the stream in January. When we were in Iceland, we took rocks from the stream, measured nitrogen fixation rates, and then scraped the algae off into a container and took the algae back to the lab. Later on, we would need to know the surface area that the algae inhabited on the rocks, but we didn’t want to carry around the rocks until we needed that information. To make our load a little lighter, we traced the rocks on waterproof paper and then labeled each side of the rock to help us know which sides were covered with the algae. This is like many of the first steps we take when dealing with field samples- transport. How do we get algae, rocks and water samples back home to our lab? Tasks like tracing rocks may seem arbitrary at the time, but it really simplifies our job down the road.

A photocopy of  a rock tracing - with all sides - that was
 traced in the field on January 15th, 2014.
Once we returned home, we were able to scan the rock tracings and load them onto our computers so we have a digital copy of the rock surface areas. However, these images don’t tell us the surface area of the rock on their own and it requires a little work on our part, more specifically on my part, to get the data. Over the last few weeks, I have been using a special computer program called Image J to find the area of the rock that we traced.  Precision is key here.   It is important that I carefully trace the images so that we obtain an accurate area of the rock. This also goes for any type of lab work that we do because without precision, we can't be sure if our calculated results are accurate or due to our own error in the methods.

Image J program - it is simply a tool bar on my desktop
and I open the rock files as photo images and trace them
with tools from this tool bar.
Even though the field work provides much better scenery, the lab work can be just as fun and exciting. Part of the experience of taking all these samples in Iceland is getting to see the final results come together. Sometimes the lab work can seem daunting and overwhelming even, but the end result is really worth it. It's been a fun process for me to see the follow through of a research project and how much work and dedication it can require. It has certainly given me a new perspective on ecological research. The next step in the process it to see the final work put together into a paper or presentation, where I will really get to see everything come together.