February 1, 2011

Chillin’ in Antarctica: Student Tunes Into Acoustics

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It is a normal­ 13 degrees Fahrenheit, December morning, and Katie Wurtzell ’11 walks outside to begin her day. She is not in Ithaca though; rather, she is in Antarctica in the middle of the summer.

On a ship, the Laurence M. Gould, Wurtzell worked on hydroacoustics — the study of sound waves in water — with Prof. Joe Warren, marine and atmosperic sciences, State University of New York-Stony Brook. Hydroacoustics allows scientists to survey a large amount of ocean, but the images generated by an acoustic towfish cannot differentiate between certain species.

On a team of four scientists that included Warren, Wurtzell conducted research on salps — transparent gelatinous filter feeders — and krill — shrimp-like crustaceans — in an effort to differentiate the similar acoustic signatures of the two very different organisms.

Salps and krill are studied together because it has been found that the populations of the two species are inversely related. At the same time, both are critical to the ecosystem. Krill make up the diet of many marine animals, and salps play a significant role in the world’s carbon cycle as a carbon sink.

Wurtzell explained that salps eat large amounts of phytoplankton, and salp fecal pellets sink in the ocean, transporting a large amount of carbon away from the surface. This process removes enough carbon from the surface waters that salp populations can alter the earth’s carbon cycle.

Working 16-hour shifts, Wurtzell operated a conductivity, temperature and depth instrument, collected samples using nets and measured the density of salps and krill caught in the nets, among other measurements. The long days were difficult, and the lack of sleep became a problem for Wurtzell, but she says the experience and all the hardships were worth it.

Although working in Antarctica was a new experience for Wertzell, going on a research cruise was not. Her experiences began when she participated in Sea Education Association Semester, an oceans study abroad program. The 12-week journey in the Pacific Ocean piqued Wurtzell’s interest in research cruises.

After returning to the University, Wurtzell worked in the Lab of Ornithology’s Bioacoustics Research Program on whale sounds. The following summer Wurtzell secured an internship at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. There, Wurtzell did work on fishery acoustics, and as a part of her internship, she went on her second research cruise. That internship connected Wurtzell to Warren’s Acoustic Laboratory for Ecological Studies.

About joining Warren on the Antarctica research cruise, Wurtzell said “I never believed in networking, but that was definitely a who-you-know situation.”

Reflecting on her experiences, Wurtzell stated that boarding a research vessel was “the best career move I ever made.”Even after 13 weeks on three separate research cruises, she has only seen the tip of the iceberg and is excited for future research cruises whenever and wherever they may be.

Original Author: Seyoun Kim