Adam Marsh under the Antarctic
Adam Marsh, an assistant professor of marine biology-biochemistry at the University of Delaware, has received a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Deemed one of NSF’s highest honors for new faculty, the award recognizes and supports the early career development activities of “those teacher-scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century.”
The $531,000 award will support Marsh’s research on marine life in Antarctica over the next four years. The funding also will be used to develop a complementary educational program to interest budding scientists, particularly minority students at the undergraduate level, in the developing field of environmental genomics. This new area of research keys on the use of molecular techniques to determine how multiple genes interact to help an organism function in its environment.
A member of the faculty of the UD College of Marine Studies since 2000, Marsh wants to know how marine life — in
particular the Antarctic sea urchin (Sterechinus neumayeri) and the sea star (Odontaster validus) — can grow and develop in the freezing water surrounding the Earth’s frozen continent.
“Although cold ocean ecosystems comprise 72% of the Earth’s biosphere, they are sparsely inhabited,” he says. “Thus, the few animals that can survive here represent ideal systems for exploring environmental adaptations at the molecular level.”
To collect specimens for study, Marsh periodically travels to McMurdo Station, a research outpost on Ross Island, Antarctica. Once there, he and his research team venture out onto the nearby sea ice, which is 8 feet thick, cut holes in it, and inch down a tow rope into the freezing water wearing insulated diving suits that leave their faces exposed. A look-out crew on the surface is necessary to make sure that the diving holes do not freeze over before the scientists return.
Descending into the 28°F water feels like a “five-megaton-ice-cream-cone headache,” according to Marsh. “The pain eases up when your lips and cheeks go numb after sixty seconds of exposure,” he notes.
But Marsh doesn’t mind the temporary discomfort. “There are just too many unanswered questions here than any other marine environment,” he says. “It’s a fascinating and exciting habitat to explore.”
During his dives, Marsh has seen exquisite beauty in the sea anemones, sponges, sea stars, and sea urchins that transform the seafloor into an underwater flower garden in brilliant shades of red, pink, coral, yellow, and white. He’s also met up with inquisitive penguins and even killer whales.
“You get to the point where you actually like the climate,” he says. “It’s the kind of experience you don’t complain about because you feel so privileged to be there. And besides, you get free chocolate,” he says smiling, noting that the cold temperatures require a much higher calorie intake than normal.
Marsh will embark on his ninth trip to Antarctica this October.