My summer research scholarship

My summer research scholarship

Psychology and environmental studies student Emma de Jong talks about her scholarship analysing the ice chemistry of precious Antarctic samples. 

Science student Emma De Jong was excited by the prospect of working in Antarctica.

It’s crazy to think that less than two months ago I applied for a summer research scholarship. I was hoping to gain experience working in a science role and see what the research process involved, because my undergrad was heavily focused on society rather than science. The prospect of working with Antarctic ice cores was alluring. A short time later, I was dressed in semi-formal attire, nervous from head to toe, and ready for my first day at GNS Science—the home of the National Ice Core Facility and Organic Geochemistry Laboratory. This would be my home for the next 10 weeks. I quickly learned that scientists don’t wear blazers and dresses, they prefer practicality and comfort. It still took me a while to realise that I would not be under-dressed if I wore a t-shirt to work. 

My only laboratory experience prior to this involved looking at rocks in Earth Science classes and plastic brains in Psychology. I was eager to experience some different lab work but didn’t know what to expect. The project I was working on is about biomarkers of primary production in Antarctic ice cores (don’t worry, I didn’t know what it was either) that are stored in a -20℃ freezer! Nerves quickly turned into excitement when I saw the ice and the bunny suit I would get to wear in the freezer. I felt like such a legit scientist that I forgot all about my lack of experience.

1000 year-old ice core that is being used for the primary production project. Photo credit: Holly Winton

I got stuck into work alongside my supervisors Holly Winton and Sebastian Naeher. Using an ice core from the Ross Sea region we are looking to produce a time series of primary production, a process whereby tiny microbes use carbon dioxide and light (photosynthesis) to gain enough energy to live. In Antarctica, tiny microscopic plants in the ocean called phytoplankton are responsible for half of the Earth’s primary productivity. Phytoplankton are important as they form the base of the food chain, meaning the amazing wildlife of the Ross Sea all depend on these small microbes to live. They also play a significant role in the global carbon-cycle, so we want to know how they will respond under a changing climate. Studying phytoplankton in the Ross Sea is an incredibly unique opportunity because the food chain here is unbroken unlike many overfished regions in the world. 

Antarctica is difficult to access (no quick weekend trips) and the observations are scarce, making ice cores incredibly valuable. My job was to extract organic compounds from the ice core to see the types of phytoplankton present. 

Emma cleaning glassware before measuring solvents, an important step in the process as Antarctic samples can be easily contaminated.

This experience has shown me how important it is to take every opportunity that comes—you never know what will float your boat unless you try something different. In high school we tend to decide what we are good at, and what we aren’t. What a load of rubbish! To decide at 16 that I wasn’t smart enough for Chemistry was incredibly limiting for me and led me to Environmental Studies even though I was also interested in Environmental Science. 

During the summer project, what I lacked in experience or chemical knowledge I made up for with enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. Before working in the GNS Science labs, I genuinely thought that I wouldn’t be able to do the science aspect of Environmental Studies. Now, I’ve learnt much more than just how to use a pipette, and the summer project has shaped my future studies—I’m going to do a Master’s of Science in Environmental Science! I know it sounds generic and cheesy but seriously, you can truly do anything you set your mind to if you work hard and approach everything with passion and enthusiasm. 

Emma de Jong has recently finished studying a Bachelor of Science, double-majoring in Psychology and Environmental Studies. This year, she will start studying towards a Master’s of Science in Environmental Science.

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