Breadcrumbs

From masters student to Antarctic explorer

7 December 2017

Shelly Brandt

University of Waikato student Shelly Brandt is getting ready to embark on an Antarctic research trip to analyse the microbiological activity within sediments from beneath the Ross Ice Shelf.

When Colorado student Shelly Brandt moved to New Zealand to study her Master of Science at the University of Waikato in 2015, she was excited to explore the “pristine” scenery of New Zealand. Little did she know, three years later the University would send her on an epic research trip to explore an even more untouched environment: Antarctica.

Shelly, along with a team of 30 other researchers, will fly out this week to investigate the Ross Ice Shelf (RIS), the Earth’s largest area of floating ice, roughly the size of France. The RIS acts as a natural barrier to slow the input of glaciers into the Southern Ocean, so investigating what is happening underneath it is critical for understanding the impacts of climate change.

Using a hot water drill, the RIS team will bore through more than 300 metres of ice and an additional 350 metres of ocean to install environmental monitoring systems and retrieve sediment cores from the ocean floor.

“This is the first time anyone has ever attempted this sort of microbial sampling approach on the Ross Ice Shelf,” Shelly says. “There is a high level of risk involved and many variables that we can’t control, but it’s an incredible opportunity to learn something from an ecosystem that we would never normally have access to, so it’s worth the risk.”

But it hasn’t been an easy process. The team has spent the last four months adapting two types of sediment gravity core systems to prepare for whatever they may find.

“It’s tricky because we don’t know exactly what we will find underneath the ice shelf – it could be sandy composite or rich muddy sediments,” Shelly says.

Once the sediment is retrieved, Shelly’s job is to use it to gain a better understanding of what’s happening under the ice shelf. She will have to move quickly to preserve the RNA in the sediment before it degrades, sectioning the core by layers to analyse its microbiological activity. The findings will enable Shelly to investigate how the microbial communities are supporting the ecosystem via nutrient cycling underneath the ice.

“Currently, our knowledge in this area is incredibly limited so we are going with the intention of broadening that microbiological horizon. It’s really important to understand what’s going on underneath the ice shelf so that we can create solid predictive models for the future conditions in an ever-changing environment.”

With only a few days before she flies out, Shelly is counting the sleeps before she gets to discover the untouched environment of Antarctica.

“It’s such an honour to get to travel to such a challenging and pristine environment to conduct research. I’m so thankful to the University and my fantastic supervisors for giving me this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”