By Alexandra Greenwald
Sometimes referred to as the end of the Earth, Antartica is only the beginning for Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski. Beginning in November, Slonczewski will spend five weeks on a National Science Foundation (NSF) expedition to Antarctica led by Dr. Rachel Morgan-Kiss, a professor of environmental microbiology at Miami University. The team will study protozoa, or complex microbes, that live in the continent’s frozen lakes. Slonczewski and Morgan-Kiss also hope to secure funding for Kenyon students to attend future Antarctic expeditions.
Slonczewski will act as both a full member of the research team and an NSF outreach educator.
After four days of training in both Christchurch, New Zealand and McMurdo Station, Antarctica, the research cohort will fly by helicopter to the dry-land region of the continent. This area is marked by frozen lakes, the natural habitat of the protozoa the team will study.
“What’s interesting is that these microbes can conduct photosynthesis only during the Antarctic summer … when the sun is above the horizon 24 hours [a day],” Slonczewski said. “But in the Antarctic winter, the sun is below the horizon for 24 hours, so they go for several months with no sun and cannot do photosynthesis. So these microbes are interesting because they are both photosynthetic and heterotrophic [food-eating].”
These protozoa are of great interest to researchers because their photosynthesis affects climate change, though whether that effect is positive or negative is currently unknown.
When she is not collecting and analyzing samples, Slonczewski plans to post videos to YouTube that document the work of the researchers and her Antarctic experience. Among these will be videos meant for East Knox High School students as a part of Kenyon’s partnership with the school.
“I want to inspire the students to know that there is a world outside Knox County and that they can connect with the broader planet,” Slonczewski said.
Weather and Wi-Fi connections permitting, Slonczewski will also visit her Kenyon classes via Skype.
“I was very careful to make arrangements for my students,” she said. “The students will be fully taken care of.”
Professor of Biology Kathy Gillen will take over Slonczewski’s Virology class. Slonczewski, a science fiction author herself, also hopes to visit her Biology in Science Fiction course via Skype to provide a perspective on the genre from “the nearest thing to another planet on Earth.”
Amanda He ’16 is a Virology student and has been working in Slonczewski’s lab since her first year.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a major problem,” she said of Slonczewski’s absence. “It’s going to be definitely interesting because if the Internet connection works out, she’s going to Skype with the class.”
“I think [Slonczewski’s trip] would add to the class,” Taylor Geu ’16, one of 34 students enrolled in her Biology of Science Fiction, said, “It would take a step back from science fiction, but I think people do overlook the unusualness of our own planet.”
He said he was “really interested to see … what she has to share with [the class] from Antarctica.”
Slonczewski’s trip will also affect the research opportunities of Kenyon students. Not only will the professor return to Gambier with Antarctic microbes for her spring 2015 Microbiology course, but she hopes the connection with Morgan-Kiss will allow Kenyon students to do research in Antarctica.
“The hope is that in the future, we will have a Kenyon contact through [Morgan-Kiss] … and that Kenyon students will have this opportunity,” Slonczewski said.
Kaitlin Creamer ’16 hopes to take advantage of this opportunity.
“If the funding comes through … it looks like I could be going off to Antarctica, which would be an incredible opportunity to see that field of research,” Creamer said.
Creamer, who is in her third year working in Slonczewski’s lab, expressed enthusiasm for the expedition.
“The field [of Antarctic research] is beginning to bloom, and I think she’s right at the beginning of that,” Creamer said.
Morgan-Kiss will speak about her research and show real Antarctic gear as a part of the Biology Seminar Series today at 4:10 p.m. in Higley Auditorium.