Doctoral student travels to Antarctica for research training program


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Erin Collins, an earth and ecosystem science Ph.D. student, poses with a Central Michigan University flag at Palmer Station, in Antarctica where she spent the summer researching sea spiders. 

Scientific research is taking Central Michigan University students who are passionate about their area of study to every corner of the world.

This past summer Erin Collins, an earth and ecosystem science doctoral student, was accepted into the National Science Foundation Advanced Training Program at the Palmer Station in Antarctica for Early Career Scientists. She was trained how to lead future research projects in the icy landscape as a principle investigator.

Her research is focused on sea spiders and using their genetic data to study taxonomy, or how organisms can be classified.

The 25-year-old Traverse City graduate student discussed her experiences doing research in Antarctica with Central Michigan Life.

CM LIFE: How did the training program relate to the research you’re doing at CMU?

Collins: The study organism (sea spiders) I work on all the time are really abundant down (in Antarctica). I had only ever seen sea spiders in jars collected by my adviser in our lab. I was able to go down to their environment, do some trawling and get a bunch of them. I was able to see them alive for the first time in person in their environment — that was really cool.

What specifically are you studying?

I have a couple different projects going on, but I’m looking at inner-relatedness of sea spiders at different levels — within a species, genus and family. I’m using different molecular techniques to accomplish that. I’m looking at their DNA.

How do you feel the program trained you to lead research projects in Antarctica in the future?

It prepared me because when you’re writing a grant to work on a project like that, there are so many things you would never think to plan for.

We had a relatively smooth trip, and there were a lot of things we had to have a ‘plan B’ for. Like figuring out if this doesn’t work how will we still collect some data. All of that has to be thought of ahead of time, so you bring the necessary supplies with you. I was able to get a really good idea of what sort of things can typically go awry.

Do you think you’ll be journeying back any time soon?

Oh yeah. It’s not a sure thing, but I hope to keep working in this line of work. Ideally, I’d go back tomorrow. But really, it would be great to go back again as a post-doctoral student, and lead a project and do more than just collecting samples for someone else’s idea, which is kind of the point I’m at now.

How long were you there for and where did you stay? What were living conditions like?

We flew down to Punta Arenas, Chile, which is just on the southern tip of Chile. We were there for a couple of days because one thing I learned about these ships is they probably never leave as scheduled because so many things happen.

Once we arrived to the peninsula, we were there for about a month. There was a United States research station where were stayed. We would take the ship out like three more times to collect samples, and then we would work the whole time at the station.

People might make fun of me, sounding like a typical Michigan person, but it wasn’t that cold. Because we were on the Northern most point, it was comparable to a Michigan winter. It was about zero degrees most of the time. The times it was bad was when the wind really kicked up — we don’t get anything like that (in Michigan.)

Did you get to do much traveling or exploring while you were there?

We got to see the most wildlife, mountain ranges and glaciers when we were on the ship going out to do our data collection cruises. Then when we got back I was able to take a couple of days and do some hiking around the Patagonia region of Chile. We went to a national park there. There we saw some really amazing mountains and some Guanacos, which we kept calling alpacas because they look like alpacas, and lots of cool birds.

What was your favorite part of your trip?

The thing I got the most enjoyment from was interacting with all the other scientists. They were so awesome. Everyone had different types of research they were doing and no one was doing the same thing as me. I was just a sponge. I tried to talk to them about their research and expertise. Some of the older ones, who were going into faculty positions, they had good career advice, which was really nice.

What was the most challenging, or difficult, part about spending your time there?

We were working a lot. We were staying up, checking on experiments, because we had a limited amount of time. A month sounds like a long time, but I think because we had so many people with so many different ideas, we were doing like 10 different projects.

We were trying to get them all from data collection to completion while we were there. And that happened, on different levels. Some of them were more complete than others. But we were really trying to do as much as we could while we were there. So, it wasn’t challenging because we were all excited about it, but I was definitely tired all the time.

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