Local woman visits Antarctica for research trip

Mecosta County native Ana Lyons recently spent five weeks in Antarctica on a research trip, which included collecting ice samples with fellow scientists. (Courtesy photo)

BERKELEY, CALIF. — A Mecosta County native is settling in back at home in sunny California after a trip to the cold climate of Antarctica she hopes won’t be her last.

Ana Lyons, a Morley Stanwood Community Schools graduate, recently spent Jan. 2 to Feb. 5 traveling from San Francisco to McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica as part of her research on tardigrades, water-dwelling, eight-legged, segmented micro-animals.

“In high school, I looked for tardigrades all over Big Rapids and Stanwood,” she said. “Right now, I am a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley, in the lab of Caroline Williams. I am really interested in tardigrades, also known as water bears. Right now, I have to culture tardigrades in labs and I was interested in getting some from Antarctica. I am interested in how they can survive in freezing temperatures.”

Lyons has studied water bears from all over the world, but had yet to receive or obtain samples from Antarctica when a friend told her about an opportunity with the National Science Foundation to travel toward the South Pole. After applying to participate in the trip, Lyons did not find out she had been accepted until September, giving her a few short months to pack and make sure she was ready to go.

Lyons and her fellow scientists take pictures of penguins that have wandered close to a research site.

Her flights and hotels were paid for and her Antarctica gear was provided through the science foundation. From San Francisco, Lyons flew 12 hours to Auckland, New Zealand, and flew another 1.5 hours from Auckland to Christchurch. Once in Christchurch, Lyons checked out her gear, watched multiple training videos with fellow researchers and waited until the weather was clear enough to land at McMurdo Research Station, Antarctica, before leaving New Zealand in a C-130 Hercules.

“Luckily, I had the shortest flight of the group,” Lyons said, noting some of the trip participants flew from Europe and other areas around the world. “There are no commercial flights to McMurdo, so we got to fly in a military jet. It felt like we were in a space shuttle.”

Trip participants were instructed to wear their Antarctica gear during the approximately seven-hour flight to the research base with their backs to the walls of the plane and their bags strapped down in the center, Lyons said.

At the base, Lyons went through more training designed to make sure each participant was prepared in case of different emergencies, then the scientists split into groups to focus on their research. Lyons, a PhD student, generally works alone, but on the base she worked alongside peers similarly interested in microbiology to complete approximately 14 trips out onto the sea ice, collect more than 160 samples of about 11 different species and work more than 1,000 combined hours conducting experiments.

“We studied a type of protein in particular that is important for cell movement,” Lyons said. “We were curious to see if it maintains its fast actions in cold temperatures.

“Everything we wanted to do experiments on or test, we had to get ourselves,” she said, noting her group set traps and fished using bits of leftovers from the base.

To gather supplies for their research, Lyons and her colleagues would visit three different sample sites. Scientists reached one site by walking approximately a mile, while dragging sleds full of their equipment, another site required riding nearly six miles in a vehicle and the third was out on the sea ice, approachable by riding in a helicopter. On the sea ice, Lyons said researchers were required to wear harnesses and ropes in case someone were to fall over the side or the ice were to break.

Lyons Antarctica gear is checked out and ready to go as soon as the weather clears for a safe landing at McMurdo Research Base.

While out conducting research, Lyons said the scientists sometimes saw seals and penguins. When not working on the ice or in the labs, Lyons could explore the base, which includes dorm buildings, a galley, a library, craft room and more.

“It was really fun to be there,” Lyons said, noting she can’t wait to return. “The main goal was to take a group of young scientists from all over the world and show them how to conduct field research on the sea ice. It’s a program intended for young scientists to get their foot in the door.

“When I was there, I saw scientists working on climate research. Seeing it first-hand was a really different type of experience. It helped me understand how much Antarctica can change in the next 100 years with climate change and think about what’s going to happen to all these species. This entire experience made me really interested in the evolution of life and how it changes. I want to go back. I want to find a way to study tardigrades in the cold and how different tardigrades are depending on where you are on the continent.”

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Posted by Meghan Gunther-Haas

Meghan is the education reporter for the Pioneer and Herald Review. She can be reached at (231) 592-8382 or by email at mhaas@pioneergroup.com.

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