McKenna Lewis with a sea spider.

UHMcKenna Lewis, a global environmental science (GES) undergraduate major in the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, recently returned from a 6-week expedition to Antarctica—“a once-in-a-lifetime experience in and of itself!” she said.

Lewis traveled to Antarctica to be part of FjordEco, a collaborative research project led by scientists from UH Mānoa, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The goal of the project is to learn more about the under-studied fjord ecosystems of the Western Antarctic Peninsula, and understand the physical and biological drivers of the highly productive ecosystem and its sensitivity to climate change.

From Hawaiʻi to Antarctica

Onboard the Antarctic Research and Supply Vessel Laurence M. Gould, charted by the National Science Foundation, Lewis worked closely with Craig Smith, oceanography professor at School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST).

“The UH team was investigating the benthic ecology—that is, the complex interactions between organisms that live on or in the seafloor—of this region,” said Lewis. “With my interest in ecology, I am excited to focus on that for my senior thesis project.”

As a student of the GES degree program, Lewis learned about FjordEco at a series of presentations designed to match GES students with research mentors for their required research thesis experience. Smith, chief scientist of the research project, had positions available for undergraduates to participate on one of the cruises and complete a thesis project within the parameters of FjordEco.

Better than television

Sea pig (Scotoplanes globosa). (photo credit: EOL Rapid Response Team, (c) MBARI)

In the first weeks of the cruise, the team prepared and deployed several moorings that held either sediment traps to catch particles that fall to the ocean floor or a time-lapse camera. Later, the UH team took cores of sediment from the seafloor that were sliced into sections, preserved, and will later be analyzed at SOEST.

They also conducted trawls to collect organisms in a net pulled through the water. Lewis and others washed and sorted those organisms, took pictures of them and preserved the specimens for later identification and analyses.

“Processing the trawls was my favorite operation because, although it was time consuming and unbelievably muddy, being able to hold and closely observe organisms from the benthos, which I’d only ever seen in BBC documentaries or preserved in bottles, was so exciting!” said Lewis. “A trawl we did in the inner basin of Andvord Bay came up chock-full of ophiuroid (sea stars) and pycogonids (sea spiders). Another trawl in the Gerlache Strait had a few dozen sea pigs. It was fascinating to see changes in species abundance and diversity from trawl to trawl within the fjord and out onto the open shelf.”

A sunny day in the inner basin of Andvord Bay. (photo credit: McKenna Lewis)

New experiences in an icy paradise

The greatest challenge for Lewis was simply being inexperienced in field oceanography—something that is true for every oceanographer, at some time.

“Although I prepared myself for the cruise as best as I could in my studies, there was still so much for me to learn,” said Lewis. “Fortunately, all who taught me and helped me in my learning process on the cruise were always patient and kind. Everyone from our group gladly shared what they knew about the various structures and functions of the different species found.”

This cruise was the first research cruise Lewis had been on. She experienced many other “firsts” on the cruise.

“We went ashore to Ne Ko Harbor in Andvord Bay, a beach-like landing in the inner fjord where we collected macroalgae, so I was wearing a rubber dry-suit,” she said. “I was able to wade waist-high into the freezing water, with large chunks of ice floating around and knocking into me, to collect pieces of kelp, remaining totally warm and dry. I also saw snow for the very first time!”

“My experience as a participant on this cruise has exceeded any hopes I had as an undergrad from Hawaiʻi. The awe-inspiring views in Andvord Bay paired with calm, fjord-protected waters bring to mind only one word: paradise,” said Kauaʻi-born Lewis.

Researchers in muddy Mustang suits after processing a trawl. (photo credit: McKenna Lewis)

SOEST preparing students for the future

The GES program trains students in Earth-system science and to think creatively about the challenges facing communities and natural resources now and in the future. This innovative program includes a faculty-mentored research experience in which students conduct research, write a thesis and deliver their findings in a public presentation.

SOEST, ranked 13th globally in geosciences, is a leader in the fields of ocean, earth, atmosphere and space science providing unlimited opportunities for undergraduate research. Throughout the GES degree program, students are engaged in field work, laboratory work and field trips, and have access to a variety of facilities, field stations and environments including deep ocean and coastal research vessels, SOEST’s world-class Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology, Hawaiian fishponds such as Heʻeia, Station ALOHA, and an active volcano.