BGSU Magazine Spring 2010

Journey to Antarctica

Arctic experience contributes to future health of Lake Erie

BGSU student Nigel D’souza

When Nigel D'souza - a third-year doctoral student in biological sciences at BGSU - first stepped foot on the ice shelf leading to McMurdo Station in Antarctica, he was speechless. So were the other 24 researchers selected from more than 400 applicants worldwide to participate in a National Science Foundation-sponsored training program.

"D'souza, who is completing his dissertation research on phytoplankton that live under the ice during the winter in Lake Erie, spent the next month completing field work in extreme environments. Although it was summer with the sun shining 24 hours a day, the temperatures ranged from -5 degrees C to -20 degrees C.

He is working with Dr. R. Michael McKay, professor of biological sciences, on his diatom study, which has received support from the Ohio Lake Erie Commission (Lake Erie Protection Fund) and from Ohio Sea Grant.

D'souza will use information garnered from the Antarctica experience as he continues to study the diatom algae in Lake Erie that may be linked to the "dead zone" that appears in the lake each summer. 

"Essentially, we're trying to determine the composition of the winter phytoplankton," he explains. Researchers currently know of certain algae that flourish in the spring and summer and decompose, resulting in oxygen depletion and formation of a "dead zone" - an area that is not conducive to aquatic life and can lead to taste and odor problems in drinking water from the lake.

"Antarctica has similar algae to what we see here," explains D'souza. "We’ve learned that these diatoms survive and thrive in the winter as well. We're studying huge assemblages of biomass under the ice to try and understand how they survive in the winter."

"The human footprint on Antarctica is supposed to be minimal," D'souza notes. And animals live unaffected by humans. "We were taught that if we saw a penguin or other wild animal while working, we were to stop everything and remain silent. People are trained not to interact with the animals."

He concludes, "It's an experience that you really cannot get anywhere else in the world today."