Not many scientists would be willing to spend their summers in the cold and remote Arctic circle. But this past summer Dr. Jay Nadeau, an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at McGill University, and her colleagues did just that and journeyed to the McGill Arctic Research Station, located just 5 miles inland at Expedition Fjord, Nunavut, on Central Axel Heiberg Island in the High Arctic.
The unique Arctic climate is perfect weather to investigate evolution and the nature of extremophiles. The information gathered can help explain how life could subsist on Mars.
In the off-season, Nadeau’s research spans diverse fields including the properties of nanoparticles, fluorescence imaging, and the development of instrumentation for the detection of life elsewhere in the solar system.
She is also passionate about bringing interdisciplinary researchers together by making biology more accessible to physical scientists. Her recent textbook “Introduction to Experimental Biophysics” is an amalgamation of her efforts in this area, and was published this fall. She spoke with UTM to discuss her experience in this fragile and unique environment.
Under the Micropscope: How did you get involved in this research?
I had been working on ways to label bacteria on the surface of Mars for several years before I had an opportunity to go to the Arctic, but it was all lab work, nothing in the field. When I came to McGill, I learned about the Canadian Space Agency’s program to fund research at “analogue sites,” which is a network of Mars-like environments that includes Axel Heiberg Island. With some collaborators at McGill, I put together a proposal to test our labelling techniques in the field.
UtM: Why do we study the Arctic as an analogue for life on Mars?
It is almost generally believed that early Mars—3.5 to 4 billion years ago—was warmer and wetter than Mars is today. But it was still cold and dry by Earth standards, so the best example of what we have for Martian conditions is found at the Poles, both North and South. Studying the microorganisms that grow in those soils can help us figure out how to detect similar life that might exist (or have existed) on Mars.
UtM: What is a typical day in the field like?
In July in the Arctic, the sun never goes down, so the day begins when you decide it to. Our work usually involves hiking out to ponds or cold springs where there are microorganisms that we wish to study, so we pack up our backpacks and instruments, make a lunch, and start walking to the site. We set up our instruments to image microorganisms in the water, and take samples of the water to measure its temperature, pH, sodium concentration, and concentration of other types of salts. We usually also take a bunch of photographs of the area, since the climate and weather vary so much from year to year.
After getting data, we pack up and hike back to the station. The hiking and cold air make everyone really hungry, so a lot of thought and effort goes into dinner!
In the evenings we upload and analyze data and prepare for the next day. If there is anything wrong with the instrument, we try to fix it so we don’t miss a day in the field.
UtM: What else can go wrong?
Almost everything! Being as we’re so far north (80 degrees latitude), what can obviously go the most wrong is the weather. If a storm hits when you’re in the field, it can be very cold and windy and potentially dangerous.
Also your instrument can break. There are a lot of tools at the station, but of course you can’t buy parts at Radio Shack. Often there are instrument malfunctions merely caused by the cold or other extreme conditions, such as acidic water or salt.
It’s also important to realize that you can’t plug things in. There are a couple of small generators, but they are run intermittently. Power-hungry instruments like centrifuges usually don’t work at all. So there’s a limit to what you can do in terms of science.
UtM:Tell me about some of the physical challenges involved in travelling to the arctic for research?
The trips are definitely physically demanding. We hike to our experimental site, which can take anywhere from half an hour to three hours, carrying all our instruments and supplies. It’s important to be in shape and have good footwear. Sore feet has stopped more than one scientist from doing fieldwork!
Oh, and one more thing—it’s hard to operate delicate instruments while wearing mittens!
UtM: At any point in your career, have you faced a challenge related to being a female working in a scientific field?
There has been the occasional person who has refused to take me seriously. Usually I try to avoid such people, but sometimes it’s impossible if they’re a teacher or collaborator. It was much worse when I was younger—a few gray hairs doesn’t hurt.
UtM: Any advice for women and girls looking to pursue science/research that involves travelling to extreme locations?
Stay in shape is the main one! Also have good equipment such as boots, backpack, etc and have them broken in before you go. Be comfortable with tools and fixing things on the fly. Never be afraid to take your instrument apart into tiny, tiny pieces. Know your instrument (or experiment) inside and out before you go; it’s a part of you. Don’t rely on anyone else to know what to do. Have a back-up plan and a back-up hard drive. At the same time, you don’t have to be “superwoman,” so if your backpack is too heavy, or you really need another chocolate bar RIGHT NOW, say so. No one will think you’re a wimp, or if they do, that’s their problem.
Image 1 courtesy of McGill University
Image 2 courtesy of NASA