Visiting Lecturer Participates in Antarctic Research Cruise

Images from the cruise.

 How one lecturer spent her holiday break from Bates

This past January, Bates Biology lecturer in Marine Ecology, Dr. Kerry Whittaker, participated in a research cruise exploring the diversity, evolution, and adaptive capacity of marine phytoplankton inhabiting the Antarctic waters of the Southern Ocean. On Christmas Eve, Kerry and 20 other researchers boarded the U.S. research vessel, the Nathanial B. Palmer, and sailed far south into the Southern Ocean and the cold bright Antarctic summer.

Kerry joined a team of researchers interested in the the ecological, physical, and evolutionary processes that generate and maintain phytoplankton diversity in the Southern Ocean. Marine phytoplankton are single celled algae responsible for important processes that generate 50% of oxygen on our planet, cycle carbon, and support diverse marine food webs. The groups’ research targeted diatoms, an ecologically important group of phytoplankton that act as the base of the Antarctic food chain and contribute 20% of global primary production. Researchers aboard the N.B. Palmer were particularly interested in how diatom populations are changing in a rapidly warming and acidifying Southern Ocean.

The cruise departed from Punta Arenas, Chile and sampled diatom populations across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula, and throughout a month-long transect to the Ross Sea. Kerry was part of a team collecting community phytoplankton samples for molecular DNA analysis. She also helped to grow and develop thousands of genetically unique diatom cultures using microscopy, a very steady pipetting hand, and careful incubation techniques. The molecular analysis will help researchers to better understand the extent of diversity among diatom populations in the rapidly changing Southern Ocean. The diatom cultures developed will be subjected to future Southern Ocean conditions to assess their potential for evolution and adaptation in the face of a changing climate.

Using data and samples from their cruise, the researchers hope to better understand their potential for Antarctic phytoplankton populations to adapt to a rapidly shifting ocean environment.  The cruise was a scientific success, with the added perks of penguin, seal, and whale sightings, 24 hour daylight, and a stunning Antarctic seascape.

The chief scientist for the research cruise was Dr. Tatiana Rynearson from the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, in collaboration with Sinead Collins of the University of Edinburgh; the research was funded by the National Science Foundation. The biological oceanography team sailed with physical oceanographers and nutrient analysis from the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling group (SOCCOM) ( and outreach experts from Climate Central, a Science and News Organization (