Diana Wall, a Colorado State University researcher, is set to travel to Antarctica for her 19th season conducting soil ecosystem research in Antarctica’s ice-free McMurdo Dry Valleys. She and her team will be sharing their experiences with elementary kids through a blog chronicling their two-month stay in the 24 hours of daylight at the bottom of the earth.
Scientists will describe what it is like to live in Antarctica and give schoolchildren glimpses into the life of a field researcher in the lab’s blog, The World of Nematodes, at http://nemablog.wordpress.com/.
The blog was developed last year by Breana Simmons, a postdoctoral researcher in Wall’s lab, to communicate with grade school students in Michigan and elsewhere. It was so successful that there was demand from other local Fort Collins schools to participate.
"Creating a blog seemed like a really fun and easy way for educators and students to get involved in our science and interact with us while we’re in Antarctica," Simmons said. "When it started, there were only a couple of schools interested, but now I’m responding to requests from teachers of all grade levels who want to add Antarctic science to their curricula."
Antarctic soils are the oldest, coldest and driest on Earth. Wall and her Soil Ecology Lab at Colorado State primarily focus on the many ecosystem processes that are mediated by soil organisms.
Research on soil communities with low diversity, such as in Antarctica, provides an opportunity to clarify relationships between species diversity, physical and chemical factors, and ecosystem functioning that otherwise are masked by the overwhelming complexity of soil biodiversity found in most terrestrial ecosystems.
No other soil systems are known to exist in which nematodes – a soil organism – represent the top of the food chain and where food webs are as simple in structure. Nematodes are aquatic animals and moisture is a more important factor for survival in Antarctica than low temperature. Moisture from melting snow and streams is available to soils only intermittently, so organisms must be capable of prolonged survival with limited moisture and temperatures below freezing.
Wall is a senior research scientist and biology professor at CSU and is the director of the university’s new School of Global Environmental Sustainability. She and her lab have been working in Antarctica since 1989, and for the 2009 field season, she is taking a team of seven: two graduate students, Karen Seaver and Tracy Smith; and two postdoctoral students, Breana Simmons and Uffe Nielsen, from Colorado State’s biology department and Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory; a New Zealand graduate student, Nick Demetras, from Brigham Young University; and Byron Adams, a molecular evolutionary biologist at Brigham Young, and his doctoral graduate student, Bishwo Adkihari.
"It is fantastic to be still going to the ice with this team of young women and men for my 19th season. When I started going to the ice in 1989, there were few women, and now there is a good balance," Wall said.
The Colorado State team is collaborating with the New Zealand Antarctic Program under a memorandum of understanding that was created in 2007 by CSU and the University of Waikato in New Zealand.
"This particular partnership allows us to work with scientists from the United Kingdom, New Zealand and America to predict where life exists in the Antarctic landscape," Wall said.
Wall and her team will be on the ice during the Antarctic field season in December and January 2009, which is summertime on the continent.