Antarctica is a land of extreme temperatures, sheer mountains, stunning scenery, and amazing wildlife. It’s also a place that Alison Cleary can’t get enough of. She crossed the Southern Ocean to Antarctica for the second time last spring as part of a team of researchers from the Graduate School of Oceanography studying what and where krill feed, and she’s returning again next December.
“It’s an amazing place,” Alison said. “Everything is blue and white, the mountains are huge and covered in snow and ice, and the air is incredibly clear so you can see forever.”
She first came to URI after getting her undergraduate degree at University of California, San Diego, specifically to work with Professor Ted Durbin, who uses state-of-the-art technology to study zooplankton. “I wanted to use the latest and greatest DNA technology to learn about these tiny creatures in a way that nobody has ever done before,” she said. “Ted gave me that opportunity.”
“Krill are incredibly important,” she added. “They make up 90 percent of the diet of most penguins, seals and whales. We need to understand what the krill eat because as the environment changes in Antarctica, what is available for the krill to eat may change, and that could affect all the other creatures up the food chain.”
To find answers to her research questions, Alison is dissecting the stomachs of the krill she collected in the spring and sequencing the DNA she finds to identify their diet. She will do it all over again next December to compare what krill eat in summer versus winter.
And when she’s finished and completes her doctorate, she’ll look for even more opportunities to return to Antarctica.
“Everything in Antarctica is fascinating, and even though it might sound crazy to want to go there in the middle of winter, I love it!” she said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to be able to continue to conduct research in Antarctica.”