Las Vegas Sun

April 18, 2019

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Moving from desert study to midsummer below zero at South Pole

From a high desert laboratory in Nevada to the bitter cold of Antarctica, University of Nevada researchers are getting a first hand look at living organisms in extreme environments.

Between now and Dec. 20, Julie Allen will toil with term papers, laboratory experiments and presentations with the usual fervor of an aspiring graduate student.

By late December, though, some of the theory she acquired in the warm, comfortable setting of the University of Nevada-Reno and the Desert Research Institute will be applied to largely uninhabited continent of Antarctica.

Allen of Carson City is enrolled in UNR's Environmental, Science and Health Graduate Program.

Beginning at the end of December, she will spend three months in Antarctica, conducting research and experiments for Chris Fritsen, a research professor at DRI who is studying microbes that live beneath the ice covers on Antarctica's lakes

"You never know until you get down there how people will react to Antarctica. You don't really want people to be overly enthused, but to put the trip into perspective and I think she (Julie) has done that," he said.

The trip is unlike the typical image of the intrepid explorer.

Instead, it requires a continual process of experimentation, conducted in semipermanent tents and the McMurdo Research Station on Antarctica's Ross Island.

"I needed a no nonsense, nose-to-the grindstone person for an intense period of research. And Julie appears to have that determination, willingness to learn and flexibility," he said. "Our exploration is scientific exploration."

The basic research skills required on a trip can be learned in several months, provided the student has good analytical skills, he said.

"It's a great opportunity for one of my students to learn science in a pristine environment and apply it to the restoration of a polluted environment," he said.

The biggest challenge is the preparation for the challenging environment.

"It'll be summer in the Southern Hemisphere, around freezing, which is pretty warm," he said.

Antarctica, considered one of the most pristine places on earth, is a marked contrast from the ecosystems that interest Allen.

Allen, a native Nevadan, said she is intrigued by algae - the simplest organisms - that live in the state's fresh-water lakes and wetlands, and the effect of pollutants on their survival.

Her other interest is whether light is harmful to the water's organisms.

"During my two and a half months in Antarctica, I will learn some basic research techniques. It's a great opportunity, great field experience, because I don't have much experience sampling. I think this is going to be good preparation for studying the lake (Tahoe)," she said.

Allen's first year of graduate work has been smoothed by a $14,000 fellowship she received in October from Sierra Pacific Power Co.

The one-year fellowship covers tuition fees and office and laboratory space at DRI.

Glenn Miller, director of UNR's graduate program in environmental science and health, encouraged Allen to apply for the fellowship. He said he encourages at least one undergraduate student to apply annually.

She will spend several days in New Zealand receiving survival training.

"They issue us cold-weather clothing and some tips," she said.

The trip, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, will be Fritsen's eighth to Antarctica.

The transportation is provided, including the cargo plane from Christchurch, New Zealand, and dormitory and laboratories are provided on arrival.

"Nowadays, it's not that strenuous. It's very involved, but you're supported once you arrive," she said.