Alumni profile: searching Antarctica for key to climate change

February 19, 2015

Few people can lay claim to experiencing the driest, coldest and most remote continent on Earth in their lifetime – let alone having it as an “office”.

But for Jodi Young, a research expedition to the untouched wilderness of Antarctica has meant rare access to some of the world’s most unique ecosystems for her study into phytoplankton – microscopic algae organisms.

Jodi (BSc (Hons), 2002) said it was during her undergraduate study in marine science, biotechnology and molecular biology at Murdoch University that she became interested in links between biology and the environment.

“The environment is such a complicated system and small perturbations can have large impacts that you wouldn’t necessarily expect,” she said.

“Over geological timescales you can see a very clear correlation between phytoplankton productivity and climate which demonstrates the necessity to understand this complex interaction to help interpret future change.”

Jodi took up a postdoctoral research position at Princeton University in the United States two years ago after completing a PhD at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

She said highlights of her study had been field work including a seven-week research cruise from the UK to Punta Arenas in Chile and a two-month research expedition to the US Antarctic Base, Palmer Station, to study polar phytoplankton.

She described the Antarctic trip as an “amazing” experience, detailing how she had come face-to-face with local wildlife and used zodiac boats to collect phytoplankton samples each day.

“It was absolutely beautiful. There was an Adelie penguin colony nearby and elephant seals. We saw a huge phytoplankton bloom, followed by the arrival of krill and then the whales. We also had a glacier we could hike up in our spare time, or go camping, or just chill in the hot tub.”

At Princeton, Jodi is now working closely with climate modellers to understand how phytoplankton adapts in polar temperatures so experts can better predict future climate change.

“These regions are experiencing some of the most rapid warming on the planet and we are uncertain how the large phytoplankton blooms that occur down there, which feed all the whales, penguins and krill and are an important global carbon dioxide sink, will respond,” she said.

“It is really important to study phytoplankton in the environment in which they are found. It is hard to replicate the same mixing, chemistry and light in a laboratory. Plus, many Antarctic species aren’t in culture and we have no idea how they interact with each other.

“By visiting Antarctica we can also record any changes we see over time. At Palmer Station there has been a long-term ecological research program running since 1990 and over that time we have seen shifts in penguin colonies and phytoplankton blooms.”

Jodi said her passion for the ocean started at a young age growing up in Perth.

“My family had a boat that we took out almost every weekend,” she said. “I grew up swimming, diving and fishing and it became an important part of my life.

“In fact, it must have rubbed off on my brother too. He’s a fisheries officer working along the WA coast and I’m very jealous that he gets to spend more time out on the water than I do.”

Jodi said she considered herself extremely fortunate to have had opportunities to travel the world while pursuing her research.

She is in the process of publishing five research papers from her field season in Antarctica.

By Nicole Cox

This story first appeared in Murdoch's alumni magazine InTouch.

 

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