We are a group of freshwater ecologists from the Biology Department at St. Catherine University in Saint Paul, Minnesota traveling to Iceland this summer to study the effect of temperature on nitrogen fixation rates in geothermally active streams in the Hengill region of Iceland. We are collaborating with a group of scientists from the U.S. and Iceland in our research.

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. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Craft Time or Research?

Continuing on with my research, I’ve decided to design my own project this semester in hopes of answering some questions that came up during our trip to Iceland. I am interested in how nitrogen fixation rates have been measured in the field using different methods, and what each of those methods tells us. One of the most important parts of our research is making sure our methods are accurately measuring nitrogen fixation rates. If there are some variables that are unaccounted for in our methods, we may be underestimating or overestimating the rates at which new nitrogen is entering ecosystems.

One of the three methods - injecting the water with
heavy nitrogen gas.
This semester I will be working towards understanding how current methods for measuring nitrogen fixation rates compare to each other. I will be studying them in a completely controlled laboratory environment, while only manipulating single variables at a time. What I hope to establish is how each method responds to temperature when measuring nitrogen fixation rates. While not unexpected, the preliminary data suggest the three different methods that we have used in the field do not agree with each other. This is perplexing to me and I am determined to solve this mystery.

 Bauhaus - the "pot of gold" to us -
a hardware store we relied on in
Iceland for supplies.
As I prepare to begin my experiment, I have been reading scientific papers that describe these methods in detail, trying to understand long calculations, and thinking about all the details that I need to keep track of during my experiments. I have to closely monitor water temperature, pressure, and volume among many other variables. The next step will be to buy and order all the supplies I need, including live algal cultures, and make a trip to the local hardware store. It seems impossible, but sometimes we can’t just go online and order the exact supplies for these specific experiments. While they may not know it, hardware stores are very useful for scientific experiments.

Though it may not seem like it, research can involve many skills. It involves math, science, critical thinking and writing skills, just as much as it involves being just a little bit crafty at times. There are numerous occasions where we need to build custom supplies for such a specific task, that there just isn't the demand for them yet among many consumers, and they just can’t be ordered. The best way to get exactly what you want is to make it yourself. This requires some resourcefulness and thinking outside of the box. Luckily, hardware stores usually carry a wide variety of odds and ends to provide us with all the necessary items to make custom equipment that can suit the needs of any unique project. This is the part where I really have to thank my parents for all those years of childhood crafts and building projects. Those years of fine tuning my love and appreciation for tape, glue and re-purposed cardboard boxes have finally been put to the test and come in handy. Last summer our team invented a way to keep warm water in 60 ml syringes insulated while we shook them for 5 minutes or sometimes longer. What we came up with was insulating them with pipe insulation and duct tape. The design was nearly perfect - it allowed us to shake three large syringes in one hand at a time, while keeping the temperature of the water inside within a few tenths of a degree away from the temperature of the stream, after being exposed to the air for 5 minutes. This was especially ideal for days when the air temperature was much colder than the water temperature.
Syringe insulators made from pipe insulator and
wrapped in duct tape, which I named
"Sleevies", because they look like sleeves for syringes!

With my new project this semester, I will be using familiar methods, but I will be applying them in a laboratory setting.  So, I will have to rethink the overall design and discover how to best adapt our field methods for the lab. While working in the lab is certainly much easier than the unpredictable field environment in many ways, other aspects of the project become more challenging.  In the field, I really took for granted that the algae was right at our feet and self-sufficient -  all we had to do was collect it from the stream. Unfortunately, it is now winter in Minnesota and below freezing, and obtaining and maintaining algal specimens to work with will be one of the most challenging factors to deal with in a laboratory setting. Hopefully, I can find an algal species that will cooperate and be an appropriate comparison with our field data; however, I’m looking forward to the challenge.  I will really add some diversity to my skill set and research experience with this project, and will challenge myself in new ways by taking leadership of the project as a whole. Stay tuned for updates on my progress and possible inventions!

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.