Biology studies lead UO undergrad to probe fish genetics in Antarctica

Ashley Nelson capped off her undergraduate odyssey at the University of Oregon with a five-month-long research trip to Antarctica, returning to Eugene more self-confident than ever and with a message to undergraduate students who may be hesitant to pursue an in-the-field research experience:
"Don't let an opportunity intimidate you," she says. "Just go for it, because more than likely it is going to be something really life-changing. You will learn something about yourself."

Nelson's opportunity came when her adviser, Alan Shanks, at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB) in Charleston, suggested that she apply for an undergraduate-level lab opening studying fish genetics with UO biologist John Postlethwait at Antarctica's Palmer Station.

Nelson, who spent three quarters at OIMB, grew up in San Diego, Calif., but graduated from Skyview High School in Vancouver, Wash., in 2009. She came to the UO to major in marine biology because of her interest in ichthyology — the study of fish.

Research on "ice fish"

John PostlethwaitAt Palmer Station, Nelson was on a team helping Postlethwait probe the embryonic development of notothenioids [NO toe THEE nee oids]. Postlethwait, a member of the UO's Institute of Neuroscience, is part of a National Science Foundation-funded research effort led by Bill Detrich of Northeastern University in Boston. (See story "Raising Notothenioidei")
Some 120 species of these "ice fish" have evolved to survive in frigid Antarctic waters. Among the adaptations is a musculoskeletal system with low ossification of their bones, meaning less hardening and increased buoyancy.

The fish also are negatively buoyant "because their common ancestor lost its swim bladder, so they tend to spend much of their time at or near the ocean floor," said UO graduate student Braedan McCluskey, a member of Postlethwait's lab, who also was at Palmer Station.

McCluskey grew up in Hendricks, Minn. He came to the UO to study evolutionary and developmental biology after earning a bachelor's degree in biology at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. The UO attracted him because of its development of zebra fish as a model organism. Postlethwait's lab, he said, has been a perfect fit.

The lab at Palmer Station

Braedan McCluskey in AntarcticaCatching the fish for the research, McCluskey said, involved trawling the ocean bed at a depth of about 150 meters (almost 500 feet). The fish were then placed in temperature-controlled and well-oxygenated tanks where they reproduce.

The room where embryos were raised was kept at about 32 degrees, Nelson said. Outside temperatures ranged from a low of -12 degrees Fahrenheit to a high of 42 degrees F in October.

The focus was on two related but very different fish: the yellowbelly rock cod that has a normal skeletal structure and lives near the sea floor and the blackfin icefish, which has the reduced skeletal makeup and swim at shallower depths.

"We raised embryos of these fish in incubators and sampled them at certain developmental stages in relation to bone/cartilage development and the genetic factors associated with reduced ossification," Nelson said. "It is believed that this process may have implications in the understanding and treatment of human diseases such as osteoporosis."

Nelson's path into science

Nelson holds an adult ice fishNelson's dive into marine science began in seventh grade, when she won a writing contest run by BE WiSE, a program of the San Diego Science Alliance, she said. (BE WiSE is Better Education for Women in Science and Engineering, a program that engages young women in science, technology, engineering and math learning experiences.) That won her an overnight stay at Sea World in San Diego.

"Before that I had been interested in biology, in general, and working with animals," said Nelson, who since has become a certified scuba diver. "This experience led me to really begin exploring marine biology."

Nelson's five years at the UO were based in the Robert D. Clark Honors College. She defended her undergraduate thesis, based on her work at OIMB, on Nov. 25, passing "with distinction" — the highest grade awarded.

Journey to Antarctica

The trip to Palmer Station involved air travel to Santiago, Chile, to go through customs, and then on to Punta Arenas, on the southern tip of Chile, where two research vessels are kept: the 308-foot Nathaniel B. Palmer with ice-breaking capabilities and the Laurence M. Gould, 250-foot ice-resistant vessel with a primary mission to support research in the Antarctic and to resupply and transport researchers and staff between Palmer Station and South American ports. The Gould delivered the UO team to Antarctica.

Palmer Station, completed in 1968, is on Anvers Island and is operated by the U.S. Antarctic Program. The station is named for Nathaniel B. Palmer, usually recognized as the first American to see Antarctica.

Upon arrival, Nelson emailed her parents that she'd arrived safely. "The first thing I saw was the Marr glacier right behind the station," she said. "I told them that I’d never seen ice that blue, and that it was absolutely beautiful and serene."

Time for recreation

In addition to the research, Nelson said: "We could go hiking in 'the backyard,' which is the area between the station and the glacier. It's rocky and covered in snow. You can see lots of marine birds, and, occasionally, seals lounging about. We had fun hiking or snowshoeing, and we did hike to the top of the glacier to get a view of the area."

They also were allowed to zip around nearby islands aboard inflatable Zodiac boats. Her final outing, two weekends before leaving for home, she had "the most surreal" experience of her journey.

Ashley Nelson"It was an absolutely beautiful day — no wind, sunny," Nelson said. "We went out thinking it would be a great time to go see wildlife. We did. We saw penguins and seals. When we were out in the middle of the harbor, zipping from one island to the next, all of a sudden we looked ahead and there was this swarm of like 500 to 600 cormorants heading our way, flying low to the water. They passed right over our heads, about 10 feet above us. All of us on the boat were clicking away on our cameras. They passed over us, and then they must have decided there was something curious about us, because they did a circle around us. We were in the vortex of cormorants. You could hear their wings flapping but they weren't very vocal. They were all turning their heads, looking at us. Then they all splashed down in the water right next to us."

Arrivals and departures of the Gould at the Palmer Station, McCluskey said, made for his most memorable moments. "When the ship departs, it's bittersweet," he said. "You're saying goodbye to people you've grown to know, but you also know that it brought new people that are as excited about everything as you are. As a farewell and a bit of fun, it's customary for everyone to wave goodbye from the pier. For some people, that farewell isn't enough, so they jump in once the boat is away from the pier. And that water is COLD!"

Jim Barlow