What causes phytoplankton Pseudo-nitzschia to produce domoic acid when it blooms? Domoic acid is a neurotoxin that has negative effects on shellfish fisheries and mammal, bird, and human health. UW junior Kelsey Gaessner is helping to answer this question in her research in the Armbrust Labs at UW. Kelsey is pursuing a biology major with a double minor in marine biology and oceanography. She gained a position in the Armbrust Labs after taking the Marine Zoology and Botany Quarter at Friday Harbor Labs (FHL), UW’s marine station in the San Juan Islands.
Her involvement with phycology – the study of algae – began after high school when she worked for two summers in a research lab in the School of Ocean and Earth Science Technology in Hawaii. While working there, Kelsey discovered that she was interested in phytoplankton and enjoyed doing research. Kelsey said:
“I was working in a lab with Dr. Susan Brown looking for potential algal species appropriate for biofuel production. I did a lot of growth measurements to see which species grew fastest, as well as maintaining the large collection of samples from Hawaiian waters and species from the Great Salt Lake.”
Before finding her current research job with the Ambrust Labs at UW, Kelsey took BIOL 356 – Introduction to Ecology from Dr. Emily Carrington, a marine biologist who lives at FHL. Dr. Carrington encouraged her students to spend a quarter living and studying marine biology at FHL. Kelsey said, “At that time, I wanted a break from taking classes in Seattle, so I decided to pursue the marine bio minor and take classes at the labs.”
Kelsey attended the Marine Zoology and Botany Quarter at FHL during spring quarter. Students in this program live for three months on-site in the FHL dorms and take three integrated courses:
- Marine Zoology (BIOL 430)
- Marine Botany (BIOL 445)
- Climate Change and Coastal Marine Organisms Research Apprenticeship (BIOL 479).
Kelsey described a typical day during this program:
“You wake up early, go to breakfast, and go to lecture around 8 a.m. for an hour or two. This is followed by a three-hour lab, and lunch. After lunch, you have another lecture and another lab. You finish around 6 p.m. and have dinner.”
The content of the Marine Zoology and Botany courses is compressed to 4-6 weeks each, instead of the usual 10. Kelsey said:
“Marine Zoology is taught by Dr. Megan Dethier, who is simply awesome. The lectures were short and concise. There were a lot of really cool dissections, field trips, and demonstrations. Some of the dissections included crabs, snails, sea urchins, clams, sea slugs, and countless worms.
The botany class was co-taught by Charlie O’Kelly and Robin Kodner. Charlie’s portion of the class was focused on macroalgae and kelps and Robin’s portion focused on microalgae. Their labs involved microscope work looking at both macro- and microalgae. This class really developed my interest in phytoplankton.
We went all over the island to do intertidal surveys for both classes. We also went on a four-day field trip to Botany Beach in Canada. It was amazing. We spent the majority of our time in beautiful intertidal zones, hiking, and exploring caves. We also camped on the beach.”
Along with these classes, Marine Zoology Botany students also take the Climate Change and Coastal Marine Organisms Research Apprenticeship. Kelsey described her apprenticeship:
“This class had two parts to it – the first part included a few lectures and activities that were aimed at getting us familiar with paper writing, developing necessary skills in research, and learning about furthering our education with graduate school."
For the second part of the apprenticeship, students participated in guided research projects:
“The class (12 of us) was split into three groups with different research topics. My group studied spatial variation of phytoplankton in the San Juan Islands. Every Saturday morning, three other students, and Robin (my advisor) would boat between several of the islands and do plankton tows at eight locations.
Later, we would do cell counts back at the labs to process our data. We found the phytoplankton in the San Juans vary in population make up and abundance drastically with location. There are many factors that can contribute to this variance, namely tide and current strength, weather, sun exposure, nutrient levels, and water restriction.
The restricted basins that we sampled met the criteria of having only one area for in and outflow (an inlet/lagoon are great examples). A common trend in our data is higher phytoplankton abundance in restricted waters. “Open flow” waters, by our standards, could mean that there really isn’t a residence time for the water – it just passes through.
The restricted basin that we spent a lot of time surveying was East Sound, Orcas Island. It was the location of several large phytoplankton blooms – during the few weeks that we sampled, there was a large Noctiluca bloom, as well as a Rhizosolenia and Pseudo-nitzschia bloom.”
Spending a quarter at FHL was an unforgettable experience for Kelsey she connected with new people and developed her future goals. She said:
“Overall, I’m a pretty shy person in large lecture classes, and until I went up to the labs, I hadn’t really even spoken one on one with a professor. It was really great developing personal relationships with these professors and being on a first name basis with everyone up there.
I think FHL was probably the most fun I’ll have in college. You develop really strong bonds with your classmates (I met my current roommate at the labs – she was my roommate up there too). I still talk to my TAs, teachers, and classmates on a regular basis.
Taking classes at FHL definitely made me realize that I want to continue my education in marine biology. I’m taking classes that are focused on marine systems, and I’ve never felt more sure about what I’ve wanted to do with myself. I’m really considering graduate school in biological oceanography.”
Kelsey’s research apprenticeship at FHL turned into a job at the Armbrust Labs when she returned to UW’s Seattle campus. She said:
“I now work with Robin Kodner, under the supervision of E. Virginia Armbrust in the Center for Environmental Genomics (UW Oceanography) studying toxic algae. We are currently testing our samples from the East Sound--Orcas Island’s spring Pseudo-nitzschia bloom—for the domoic acid neurotoxin.
Several species of Pseudo-nitzschia produce this toxin, but we aren’t exactly sure why it does that. We want to see if there are any correlations of domoic acid production, and nutrient availability, or weather data, etc.
Right now, I’m currently learning the ARISA technique – using DNA to quantify and identify species of Pseudo-nitzschia to determine which species of Pseudo-nitzschia were present in the waters of East Sound during the bloom. In situ (on-site) data vs. lab data are always interesting to compare. I hope to replicate bloom conditions in the lab, including the other dominant species that bloomed with Pseudo-nitzschia.”
During the rest of her junior and senior years, Kelsey plans to finish her major and minors, continue working in the Armbrust Lab, and publish at least one paper from her research projects.
- Photos from top: Kelsey fishing in Kailua Bay, Hawaii from Kelsey; FHL Centennial during a trawl by Wally Davis; Kelsey in botany lab at FHL by Caitlin Shishido; Kelsey listening to Dr. Megan Dethier on the FHL Centennial by Caitlin Shishido; Botany fieldtrip to Deadman's Bay Wally Davis; Apprentices collecting water from a plankton tow by Caitlin Shishido; Pseudo-nitzschia and Rhizosolenia bloom by Kelsey; Kelsey with Zoology Botany students on the FHL Centennial by Whitney Grover; Kelsey on UW's research vessel the Tommy Thompson during a sampling trip with the Armbrust lab by Tony Chong