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Erin Morgan Experiences the Beauty, Fragility of Antarctica

Members of the Microbial Biogeochemistry Lab: Matthew Erickson, Kristen Myers, Erin Morgan, Aaron Randolph (left to right)

My passion for the marine environment and its conservation was central to my decision to pursue a degree in Biology and Environmental Science at William and Mary.

As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant both on campus and abroad. I began my first year doing local environmental work as a student in the Sharpe Scholars program, and later assisted with research in the W&M Geology Dept. and at VIMS, completed an REU summer internship in Alabama, studied aboard a tall ship during a SEA semester, and worked as an environmental educator. My experiences helped me to learn about the process of doing research, introduced me to supportive professors and mentors, and continually provided me with further opportunities to expand my knowledge of biology, ecology, and field work.

Retrieving the sediment trap.

My undergraduate research experiences were both fulfilling and rewarding--so when a friend told me about his work as a laboratory technician aboard the Antarctic research vessel R/V Laurence M. Gould, I was immediately interested in having a similar experience. I applied for the same "lab tech" position and was thrilled when I heard, months later, that I had been selected to participate in the 2008 research cruise!

Our month-long research cruise was part of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project based out of Palmer Station, on the West Antarctic Peninsula. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the goal of the LTER program is to investigate the changing ecosystem of the upper water column near the peninsula; each year, the Gould travels from Anvers Island to points below the Antarctic Circle, sampling transects both inshore and offshore to facilitate this research. Scientists study ecosystem components such as light and sea ice as well as microbial communities, plankton, and seabirds.Breaking the ice.

In January, our ship left from Punta Arenas, Chile, crossed the infamous Drake Passage, and stopped at Palmer Station before beginning to collect samples. I was hired as a lab tech in the Microbial Biogeochemistry lab, under the direction of Dr. Hugh Ducklow. The goal of our research was to study the "microbial loop"--how water column bacteria cycle nutrients (such as carbon) in the ecosystem.

Weddell seal, at Rothera Point. We spent our shifts collecting and analyzing data from water samples (some taken from depths of over 12,000 ft!) and running experiments in our ship-board lab. In addition, I learned about the ship itself from the crew, and the research occurring in other labs from their scientists and techs. We saw incredible icebergs, broke through sheets of ice that stretched across narrow channels, and were stalked by leopard seals in our Zodiac. We crossed the Antarctic Circle with proper fanfare and deference to King Neptune. I saw the sun both set and rise within 3 hours, and experienced four weeks without true darkness. We met British scientists and "birders," Minke whales and Humpbacks, and tens of thousands of penguins. I had the privilege of working with and learning from an amazingly talented group of scientists, enjoying the Gould's rich shipboard community, and seeing a truly breathtaking and incomparable continent. 

R/V L.M. Gould. Experiencing the beauty of the Antarctic and recognizing its fragility has made me even more determined to use my career to link science with policies that promote responsibility, sustainability, and conservation. Currently, I am working as a laboratory technician in the Wetlands Ecology lab at VIMS and looking ahead to working as an environmental educator aboard the tall ship Adventuress this summer. I plan to apply to interdisciplinary doctoral programs that focus on marine biology and environmental issues, and to begin working toward my degree in Fall 2009.