Mission Antarctica: Bringing Life and science on a remote polar research station to students across ameica

The Mission Antarctica field crew (from left to right): Iva Neveux, Joeseph Grzymski, Deneb Karentz, Austin Gajewski, Bethany Goodrich

The Mission Antarctica field crew (from left to right): Iva Neveux, Joeseph Grzymski, Deneb Karentz, Austin Gajewski, Bethany Goodrich

Mission Antarctica combined  cutting edge science with interactive storytelling and outreach.  This project brought life and science on a remote  Antarctic  field station within the reach of middle school students across the country. In 2011, the crew headed to Palmer Station on the Antarctic peninsula to begin five months of polar research. In 2013 Mission Antarctica was recognized internationally with an award of excellence by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research for outstanding outreach. 

Behind the Science

Polar environments experience extreme seasonal shifts of complete lightness to total darkness.  Antarctic life has  adapted to these intense conditions.  Unlike whales and other large animals that simply migrate when winter conditions become unbearable, phytoplankton are essentially stuck. The way plankton adapt to seasonal environmental change is the basis of this three-year project. Classic ecologically based techniques are used in combination with advanced functional genomic methods to study phytoplankton succession and adaptation.

There are over one hundred different species of phytoplankton that can be found in the area around Palmer Station alone. The composition of phytoplankton found in the harbor at any given time varies not only in overall density of plankton, but also with the concentration of different species.  What causes one species or taxa to outcompete others? What species ‘win out’ and under what conditions? How does overall phytoplankton density shift seasonally? Ecological techniques such as ‘cell counts’ and species identification at various locations and depths are plotted against rapidly changing austral conditions (such as UV/light intensity, temperature, nutrient concentration, and salinity) to answer these questions. 

This multifaceted project not observed and studied the seasonal shifts in phytoplankton ecology but also, using advanced techniques in functional genomics and fluorometry, researched the methods by which plankton adapt. What genes are being expressed and in response to what changing conditions? How is photosynthetic output and activity affected by changes in light, salinity, depth and temperature over the shift in seasons?

Why Bother?

Phytoplankton are the basis of life in and around Antarctica. The primary producers of the Antarctic food web, phytoplankton convert light energy into a form that can be used by the rich diversity of organisms unable to obtain energy directly from the sun. Because so many species depend on plankton for energy, negative impacts to phytoplankton communities rapidly and detrimentally affect entire ecosystems.

It is important to study how these vital organisms adjust and respond to intensely shifting conditions so that scientists can better predict phytoplankton response to climate change. How will plankton adapt to warmer, more acidic, and less saline oceanic conditions? How will these adaptations impact the greater community of life that rely on plankton? This rigorous, three-year, NSF funded project aims to shed light on these important questions so that we can better understand and protect Antarctic life, from the bottom up.



An unacceptable gap exists between the general public and the scientific community. The impact of scientific research- particularly of environmental and conservation concern- relies on clever and well-executed outreach projects that span all demographics. Conservation is a mission-driven field and without public support and understanding, the necessary steps towards the protection of places like Antarctica can not be taken.

The Antarctic Phytoplankton Adaptation project took outreach and storytelling seriously. Combining cutting edge ecological and genomic research with ambitious outreach efforts, 'Mission Antarctica' brought life and science on a polar research station to middle school science classrooms. Outreach pieces took advantage of new tools available to polar research stations (eg. access to strong enough internet connection for video sharing and live discussion). In this way, Mission Antarctica was able to engage classrooms in real time with the hopes of educating and inspiring youth, the inheritors of our planet.

Through a partnership with Dilworth STEM Academy of Sparks, NV and the additional support of other US schools, Mission Antarctica presented a live twitter feed, weekly field updates, data, and extensive educational content accessible on the web and through a downloadable application. Students of Dilworth STEM Academy were able to follow along and ask scientists and station members questions periodically during class on donated iPads. Grzymski was also able to live chat while on station and visit the classrooms post-expedition with Dilworth STEM. The content was available to the general public. 

With the help of station staff and science team members, I contributed to weekly field reports and crafted video material that illustrated not only lab and field activities, but also introduced students and followers to the inner-workings of Palmer Station, Antarctica. Videos can be accessed at Antarctica.dri.edu and on my YouTube Channel (click here). Videos are open and free for continued outreach use; please contact bethany@sitkawild.org if interested.


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