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Astrid Schnetzer: Doing Research With "Alvin" - 5000 Feet Beneath the Ocean's Surface

bridges vol. 5, April 2005 / News from the Network
by Caroline Adenberger

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Astrid Schnetzer has to commute to her working environment, as so many others do. One way takes her about two hours, but there are some significant differences compared to other commuters: The vehicle she's commuting with is a "Deep Submergence Vehicle" nicknamed "Alvin," and it carries her into the depths of the Pacific Ocean.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}Astrid Schnetzer, a marine biologist, has been working since 2002 as a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Southern California. Asked about what first sparked her interest in marine life, she remembers the family holidays in her early childhood in Croatia, on the coast of the northern Adriatic Sea, "learning to snorkel at the age of nine, and creating with my father a handmade plastic aquarium where we put the starfish collected from the Mediterranean." [picture: Astrid Schnetzer on board of "Alvin"]

Later, during her master's studies in zoology/ecology in Vienna, Astrid returned to the northern Adriatic Sea to conduct fieldwork for her master's thesis that dealt with coastal harmful algal blooms. After participating in a summer course in the Bermudas at the Bermuda Biological Station for Research (BBSR), Astrid Schnetzer decided to conduct her Ph.D. fieldwork (University of Vienna) there, investigating how crustacean zooplankton impact biogeochemical cycling in the Saragossa Sea.

With a passion for open ocean oceanography, it was reasonable for her to move from Austria to a coastal country. With a Ph.D. in marine biology from the University of Vienna in her pocket, she finally decided to accept a post-doc position in the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Southern California. Coming to the U.S. with a Schrödinger Fellowship, Astrid Schnetzer now joined the lab of Dr. Dave Caron, an expert in research on marine and freshwater microbial ecology, and developer of molecular biological approaches for these studies.

Asked about the working conditions in the U.S. compared with those in Austria, she says: "Both in Austria and here in California I was, and I am, working in well-equipped labs in a friendly and supporting surrounding. But most marine biology and oceanography happens in the U.S.. Therefore it is now much easier for me, for example, to participate in research cruises out of the U.S.."

Extreme 2004 - a research adventure
On the average, Astrid Schnetzer spends two months a year on board a ship for her fieldwork, besides her regular work in the lab. In November and December 2004, she joined the "Extreme 2004," a six-week cruise to hydrothermal vents along the East Pacific Rise. It was her first participation in a deep-sea expedition. To get samples from the ocean floor, she dived down with a deep-submergence vehicle called "Alvin," a three-person sub operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. "Alvin has a long history," says Astrid Schnetzer, "discovering since 1964 the secrets of the deep sea, it even explored the wreck of the Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean. Down to the present day, Alvin has made more than 4.000 dives and even eight Austrians were among the crew - one of them is Monica Bright, a colleague of mine and currently associate professor of marine biology and zoology at the University of Vienna, Austria."

"It looks like fireworks underwater"
The dive down to the sea floor takes about two hours, followed by collecting samples for approximately five hours, then two hours back up again to the ocean surface.  "You know, the more-than-nine-hour trip went by so fast, as if it had never happened," Astrid Schnetzer reports. "I dived down with Alvin in complete darkness, except for a minimal inside light, to save more energy for the actual research on the ocean floor.  During the journey I was fascinated by looking out of the porthole, watching all those amazing luminescent animals - as soon as you're getting into the dark water, more then 90 percent of the animals can produce their own light. It does look like fireworks underwater. Once arrived at the sea floor, I started to collect samples for my research by using Alvin's two huge clawed arms. When the time limit for our power supply was reached, we jettisoned the weights and slowly surfaced."

Springtime - a high time for marine blooms and marine biologists
Currently, Astrid Schnetzer is going on weekly cruises along the California coast to investigate the ecology of harmful algal blooms and to identify the key factors that allow them to temporarily dominate the coastal water, a research project financed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Those harmful algal blooms are producing a toxin, in this particular case domoic acid, which can even kill people in rare cases if imported into the human food chain through crustaceans, fish, and marine mammals - a phenomenon called "amnesic shellfish poisoning."

"Overall harmful algal blooms seem to be a worldwide phenomenon on the rise that is linked to coastal pollution. Spring to mid-summer is the time when most of these algal blooms happen along the Californian coast, and we are anticipating a strong bloom event this year since we had record rainfalls. It is likely that loads of nutrient and other key elements that favorably trigger harmful algae species get flushed into the coastal waters through the local rivers," Astrid Schnetzer explains, "and during a bloom, millions of microscopic cells color the water brown-green."

Next research stopover: Antarctica
Later this year, Dr. Schnetzer is going to participate for the second time in an expedition leading her far south, to the Southern Ocean. The expedition is a cooperation between Dr. David Caron's lab, where she works, and the lab of Dr. Rebecca Gast of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, with financial support from the National Science Foundation. The goal of the mission is to investigate the biodiversity in Antarctic marine ecosystems using molecular biological research methods as well as "traditional" approaches like microscopy. "You know, I'm so extremely lucky that I can do this kind of research in that lab, I do really enjoy my work," Astrid Schnetzer concludes, looking forward to her next amazing trip …{/access}

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