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Antarctic co-op: The mission

This is a guest blog post by Eileen Sheehan, a biochemistry student at Northeastern University who is on co-op at Palmer Station, Antarctica. She will providing a series of guest blog posts about her co-op experience.

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Me at Palmer Station. Photo courtesy of Eileen Sheehan.

My name is Eileen Sheehan, and I’m a junior biochemistry student at Northeastern University.  I’m currently doing my second co-op at Palmer Station, Antarctica under the supervision of William Detrich, a marine biology and biochemistry professor at Northeastern.  Down here in Antarctica, we’re researching some very unique fish species, specifically C. aceratus, a white-blooded icefish, which lacks hemoglobin.

That’s right.  Even though they’re vertebrates, they have no red blood cells. Instead, oxygen is transported through their bodies by being dissolved in their plasma.  We also are researching different red-blooded species such as N. coriiceps.  They transport oxygen the normal way.

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C. aceratus of mixed ages and genders in their tank at Palmer Station. Photo courtesy of Eileen Sheehan.

Our project this Antarctic winter is focusing on how the warming Antarctic waters will affect the development of these different fish species.  Our goal is to breed our fish and grow them at two different temperatures:  -1˚C and 5˚C.  Over the next two centuries, it’s actually predicted that the waters down here should warm that significantly.  As a result, it’s extremely crucial to understand preemptively what will happen to these fish.  We suspect that their development will speed up, leaving them to hatch in a season when the prey they feed on is scarce.  Unfortunately, this means that the larvae would most likely not survive.                                 

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Pot fishing at Dallmann Bay on the Laurence M. Gould research vessel. Photo courtesy of Eileen Sheehan.

In Antarctica, I’ve gotten to help on multiple aspects of our project.  I’ve been fishing at Low Island and Dallmann Bay to capture our icefish and red-blooded fish.  I’ve lead fishing expeditions on our zodiacs from the station to drop traps and capture fish at different life stages.  I’ve also used a plankton net to capture some of the fish larvae in the surrounding areas.  Aside from fishing, I’ve been helping to manage the aquariums and set-up our cold room for our incubators.  As we monitor our fish’s health, I also get to help with dissections and sampling.  In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be working directly with Dr. Nathalie Le François from the Montreal BioDome to obtain eggs and sperm to create our genetic crosses (basically when you breed a male and female to make babies).  From there, we will stay for the remainder of the winter (until October) to monitor the embryos’ development.  We hope to see our fish hatch before we leave to head home in October, allowing us to bring some samples home to further our studies.

Trap fishing on the zodiacs outside of Palmer Station with undergraduate biology student Urjeet Khanwalkar at the bow

Trap fishing on the zodiacs outside of Palmer Station with undergraduate biology student Urjeet Khanwalkar at the bow. Photo courtesy of Eileen Sheehan.

During my time here in Antarctica, I am aiming to post weekly blog posts to Northeastern’s iNSolution blog.  Stay tuned for more interesting posts on the details of my research down here as well as all of the fun things we get to do for recreation!  Antarctica is certainly a unique location to be conducting scientific experiments, and it’s an amazing experience that I can’t wait to share with you all.