Skip to content

Antarctic island named after Northeastern professor

Northeastern professor H. William Detrich, an expert in marine molecular biology and biochemistry, has been making research trips to Palmer Station in Antarctica for more than 30 years. There, he’s led groundbreaking research on Antarctic fish and in recent years has brought Northeastern co-op students for marine biological research experiences.

Now, in recognition of his notable discoveries and work, a small island less than a mile away from that research facility has been commemoratively named in his honor. The name Detrich Island was recommended for approval by the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names, and it was approved by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names on Jan. 19.

Detrich was recognized for his notable discoveries in the Antarctic waters regarding the evolutionary developmental biology of icefish, which lack red blood cells and the oxygen transport protein hemoglobin, in stark contrast to their red-blooded Antarctic relatives. He was also commended for initiating studies on how icefish are reacting to warming of the Antarctic Ocean and for his involvement in facilitating student internships and co-ops at Palmer Station.

“I’m very proud to have been recognized for contributing to Antarctic marine biology,” said Detrich, whose lab is based at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts. “But equally important, I’m thrilled to have been able to introduce graduate and undergraduate students to the fantastic experience of doing research at Palmer Station and on the Southern Ocean.”

Northeastern professor H. William Detrich, in his lab at the Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern professor H. William Detrich, in his lab at the Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Detrich’s research has identified genetic changes that allow icefish to thrive in icy waters despite not producing hemoglobin and red blood cells, which are generally considered as essential to vertebrate life. By determining the genes that icefish do not express, he explained, his lab has discovered genes previously not known to contribute to the process of red blood cell formation. Detrich and his lab members study these novel genes in zebrafish, which have a short generation time and are amenable to genetic manipulation. He was part of an international research team that in 2014 sequenced the first genome of an Antarctic notothenioid fish. Icefish are a subgroup of the notothenioids.

Detrich said the island, which is about 32 meters high and three-quarters of a mile north of Palmer Station, started to appear in 2012 from under the Marr Ice Piedmont, one of many Antarctic glaciers that are in retreat. The island is still mostly covered by ice.

Detrich will make his next research trip to Palmer Station in March and will be joined in May by three Northeastern students for their six-month co-ops, which will align with Antarctica’s winter.

He’s seen the island before, but never actually stepped foot on it—something he’s now hoping to do.

“I definitely want to go to the island when I return to Palmer Station,” he said.