Maggie Halfman: Antarctic Adventurer

When Maggie Halfman, a fourth-year marine science student, hears the word “Antarctica,” her imagination runs wild with images of the place she has yet to experience.

The thick blanket of ice that covers the continent, which comprises one-tenth of the planet’s land surface.

The whistling wind that dances across the expansive ice-filled landscape, echoing off the towering glacial cliffs.

The smell of the salty, sapphire ocean scattered with icebergs.

The cold on her cheeks.

As Halfman enters her final undergraduate year at the University of Maine, she won’t be buying textbooks as usual. Instead, she’ll be purchasing long underwear, wool socks and sea-sickness medicine (just in case).

In October, Halfman and several other researchers will board a cruise ship in Punta Arenas, Chile that will head 837 miles south to Palmer Station — one of three United States research stations on the continent — located on the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Here, Halfman will conduct an independent research project and assist Jay Lunden, a School of Marine Science postdoctoral investigator, with his project exploring the impact warming ocean temperatures have on the development of cold-water coral larvae.

“I was pretty taken aback when I found out I would be going to Antarctica, and I don’t think it will fully hit me until I am actually there,” says Halfman, who hails from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and was drawn to the University of Maine for its beautiful landscape and nationally recognized marine science program.

The research station they will be traveling to contains a biology laboratory, research facilities, two main buildings and housing for researchers. Offering year-round accommodations, the station supports 20 people in the winter and as many as 44 in austral summer. Until she departs, Halfman will be conducting research at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine for Rhian Waller, professor of marine science.

Halfman’s interest in climate change research was sparked during high school and steadily grew as she progressed in her undergraduate career with a major in marine science and a concentration in physical science. Her project is looking at how water masses are changing around the Western Antarctic peninsula using both oceanographic and biological analysis. By looking at CTD transects — conductivity, temperature and depth — from the past five years, she hopes to determine how temperatures vary in the area of Antarctica experiencing the greatest rate of basal melting.

“It’s important to understand how the oceans are changing, what the potential repercussions of climate change might be, and how we can and should act in order to minimize disturbances, which could involve the economy, natural disasters, or ecosystem degradation — it’s all important,” said Halfman.

During the voyage south, Lunden and Halfman will be collecting larval samples of Flabellum Impensun — one of the largest species of solitary coral in the world — from the ocean floor at depths from 100–1000m using remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs). They will expose the baby corals to several warming scenarios, observing their physiological stress responses to changes in environmental conditions. Using these observations, the researchers hope to shed light on the implications climate change will have on coral organisms and marine ecosystems as a whole.

Flabellum Impensun is an ideal model organism because of its reliable source of brooded larva, year-round reproduction, lack of symbionts and limited dispersal.

They will incubate the samples for a period of time before sending them back to the DMC for further analysis. Once they arrive back in Maine, the real work begins.

Lunden will use the data he collected over the course of the trip to determine what happened to the larvae during the experiment using transmission electron microscopy (TEM), flow cytometry and scanning electron microscopy analysis.

The team hopes to bring back around 2,500 samples. “When you’re collecting in nature, you never know what you’re gonna get,” Waller says.

Waller, who will lead the expedition, specializes in the reproduction and development of cold-water and deep-sea invertebrates from around the globe and explores how these animals are affected by both natural and anthropogenic environmental change. In March 2013, Waller was featured as a risk taker in an article in National Geographic titled, “New Age of Exploration.”

During the summer of 2013, Halfman accepted an undergraduate research position in Waller’s laboratory. The two had been in contact after Halfman enrolled in Waller’s polar marine ecology class. The class was not held, but that summer Halfman learned histological techniques used to analyze marine organisms in Waller’s lab. The Dearborn Fellowship program through the DMC, which allows faculty members to hire students for summer internships, funded her research experience.

While Halfman was working in the lab, Waller was notified that the National Science Foundation’s Polar Program would fund her expedition to Antarctica. Within the grant proposal, Waller had requested funding to bring an undergraduate and postdoctoral researcher with her.

When deciding which undergraduate student to bring with her on her expedition, Waller had a mental list of characteristics that she needed the student to embody.

She needed a reliable, independent worker excited for an authentic research experience. She needed to know the person she picked would be able to handle working in Antarctica’s harsh conditions. And she needed someone she could trust.

Halfman was the perfect fit.

“Maggie worked really hard in the histology lab that summer, and was willing to search out methodology instead of waiting for my direction,” Waller says. “Someone willing to do that is exactly what I was looking for.”

Looking into the future, Waller hopes to expand the project to include adult coral samples and to take into account ocean acidification changes — caused by increased CO2 levels in oceans which decreases the pH of seawater.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), changes in ocean acidification have been shown to significantly reduce the ability of reef-building corals to produce their calcium carbonate shells, or skeletons essential for life.

“We know that the ocean is warming, we know that the air is warming, we know that the oceans are starting to acidify. What we don’t really know, in most habitats, is what is going to happen to the organisms,” Waller says.

Cold-water corals play an integral role in marine ecosystems — providing habitats for many invertebrates and fishes, modulating ocean chemistry and serving as “hot spots” for biological diversity.

If a base organism — the coral — dies, what’s going to happen to the rest of the ecosystem? That is what the research team hopes to find out. By looking at sensitive larval stages, the researchers will start to piece together the puzzle of these organisms, to better predict — in the light of climate change — what the future has in store for species that lay at the bottom of some of the world’s deepest oceans.

This will be Lunden’s second experience in Antarctica, but his first time going to Palmer Station. Though he has a good idea of what to expect, he hopes the station offers more darkness. Being outside of the Arctic Circle, the sun shines for 22 hours a day. After his postdoctoral position he hopes to become a professor at a research university.

During Waller’s undergraduate career at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (U.K.) she did not have as much exposure to research as she would have liked. Today, she is dedicated to giving students research opportunities she wished she had obtained earlier in her studies.

“I like putting undergraduate and graduate students on big research projects because I think it’s fantastic experience to go and see research being done, even if it’s in a lab,” says Waller. “It helps students tailor what they want to do in the future, and I love being able to do that for them.”