Bring your spoon
Adelie penguins breed on the barren rocks surrounding Palmer Station during the brief polar summer.
But Natalie Harr isn’t there to capture – or even study -- penguins. Team leader Richard Lee, a zoologist from Miami University, invited her with a different quarry in mind. That’s why he asked.
“Are you pretty good with a spoon Natalie? And she says “Well, yeah.” And I said, ‘Well, then maybe you ought to come to Antarctica with us because we use a spoon to collect our insects when we’re crawling around on the rocks down there.”
Lee first braved a stormy passage to Antarctica in 1980 to spoon up the larva of the world’s southernmost insect, Belgica antarctica. In recent years he’s invited public school teachers to travel with him. But Harr will be the first primary school teacher to join the expedition. She’s got her spoon, and a few other essentials.
“Just packing layers of clothes -- nothing fancy, we’ll be at the bottom of the world, no one will see us.”
Antarctica's largest land animal
The National Science Foundation provides cold weather gear for the team, and year-round funding for Palmer Station.
Lee says while life abounds in the southern ocean, only a few hardy creatures survive on land.
“I want to understand how these insects can tolerate the extreme environmental stresses they face in the Antarctic.”
The larva of Antarctica’s wingless fly survive through high salt and low oxygen conditions, dehydrated and frozen solid for months.
Lee is trying to unlock their survival secrets. He and his colleagues identified proteins in the cell membrane called aquaporins that allow the larva to survive freezing.
“This is an important discovery to help us better understand freezing because it’s a pretty unusual adaptation.”
His research could lead to a breakthrough in storage of human organs for transplant patients.
Connecting with Ohio kids
At Crestwood Primary School Natalie Harr’s first graders are excited about their teacher’s scientific mission.
Aubrey says “She’s going to study the wingless fly.”
“And where is that?”
But in her research, Harr finds much of what her kids know about science comes from caricatures in the media.
“There’s a stereotype out there of what a scientist is.”
All wild hair, nerd glasses, and lab coat. Harr wants to broaden her kids' idea of who can do science by doing it herself, in Antarctica.
“I really hope it inspires students to think outside the box, to just wonder about everything around them, to get them thinking about how the world works and what they can do to make the world better.”
Natalie Harr will keep in contact with her students online during her six-week expedition to Palmer Station. She hopes her students will connect her studies in Antarctica with scientific observations they make year round in their own school yard here in Ohio.