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ACEing the “university of the sea”

27 January 2017

Steph Gardner in front of Akademik Tryoshnikov in Bremerhaven

Steph Gardner in front of Akademik Tryoshnikov in Bremerhaven

Climate Change Cluster PhD candidate Stephanie Gardner may call it luck but those who know the young marine biologist will tell you that it was her exceptional science, dedication, persistence,  and the ability to seize opportunities that got her a November 2016 berth aboard the Russian research vessel Akademik Treshnikov .

At her final PhD seminar co-supervisor Dr Katherina Petrou noted “Steph never let the science suffer and she never shied away from the hard yards.”

Dr Petrou was referring not only to the obstacles Gardner overcame during her PhD field work  -  a cyclone, power and water failures, and an earthquake at the Heron Island Research Station– but also to an intricate experimental design with 837 coral fragments.

Map showing ACE Leg Zero voyage path from Bremerhaven to Capetown

Map showing ACE Leg Zero voyage path from Bremerhaven to Capetown 

“It took four people, seven hours to set up,” laughs Gardner whose research into the impact of thermal stress on coral has increased the pool of knowledge about coral bleaching and the antioxidant role of an important sulphur compound called DMSP.

Gardner’s focus on coral has taken her to the GBR and New Caledonia however an oceanographic cruise was still on her scientific “to do” list. Enter the newly created Swiss Polar Institute and UTS Science’s international connections with Professor Rafel Simo from ICM-CSIC Barcelona. Fast forward to November 2016 and Gardner is in sub zero temperatures in Bremerhaven Germany preparing for “Leg Zero” of an unprecedented expedition around Antarctica involving 22 international, interdisciplinary scientific research teams – 55 researchers from 300 countries – and 50 students attending the “ACE Maritime University”.

“The students came from all over the world and went to lectures and undertook practical oceanography work as well. They were from all sorts of scientific fields and it was fantastic to hear about their individual scientific and personal journeys. At every meal there was a constant barrage of questions, we all got on really well and are keeping in touch. It is wonderful to be able to build these networks,” she says.

Not that Gardner had much time for socialising on the month long Leg Zero.

“The aim of Leg Zero was to get Prof Simo’s experiments set up and to solve any problems before the first leg of the voyage and the main research got underway. It was very full on, we weren’t able to start sampling until 10 days into the voyage due to bad weather conditions and problems with sampling equipment and then it was 7 – 9 hours a day of filtering the water samples collected by the two CTD casts that took place each day.”

On oceanographic cruises CTD instrumentation is used to measure a range of seawater parameters, including conductivity, temperature, depth and pH, in the vertical water column. A rosette of Niskin Bottles collects water samples for later analysis in the lab.

Laboratory set up aboard Akademik Tryoshnikov for Swiss Polar Institute Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition

Laboratory set up aboard Akademik Tryoshnikov for Swiss Polar Institute Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition

Gardner’s preliminary work supports the SORPASSO project that seeks to better understand the importance of “invisible nature” (microbes, gases like DMSP) in maintaining the earth’s climate.

Gardner also found time to run her own experiment on Nitrogen fixation by phytoplankton, a first for waters off the African Coast.

“I was interested in how algal dimethylated sulphur compounds and derivatives trigger bacterial N2 fixation by heterotrophic bacteria.”

Gardner said this was important because marine biological N2 fixation supplies a valuable source of reduced nitrogen to oligotrophic open ocean marine ecosystems which are typically depleted of essential nutrients such as nitrate.

“Until recently this N2 fixing process was considered restricted within cyanobacteria, however molecular studies have revealed there is an abundance of non-cyanobacterial diazotrophs (that fix atmospheric nitrogen gas into a more usable form such as ammonia) across the world’s oceans.”

Gardner will have to contain her natural curiosity however – the samples won’t get processed until the expedition returns from Antarctica after March 2017.

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So did her first “cruise” live up to expectations? What did she learn?

“It was amazing, I can still hardly believe I got the chance to be a part of the expedition. Making connections and networks with a diverse range of scientists has been invaluable,” Gardner says.

“On a practical level I learnt the Russian word for toilet and also that eating soup on a boat that constantly rolls is challenging! Soup was always served for entre before every meal! It was also interesting to see which comforts people missed the most from home – I’d say it was beer, coffee and pasta in that order!”

“It was also really unusual conducting ‘field work’ out on the ocean but not being able to swim – it was such a tease especially near the equator when we had glassy water that was 29 degrees and we couldn’t have a swim.”

Gardner says she would “jump at the chance to do another cruise”, setting her sights on the Southern Ocean now that she’s experienced The Atlantic. For now she’s finishing off some laboratory work, writing papers and waiting for her PhD thesis reviews to come back. The next piece of “luck” can’t be far away.