This summer I am honored to have the opportunity to spend eight weeks as a research assistant at Churchill Northern Studies Centre in the Subarctic.
The Churchill Northern Studies Centre is a nonprofit field station and research center. The center provides research facilities to aspiring and experienced scientists alike, as well as educational opportunities to the public for the purpose of enhancing the understanding and appreciation of the ecosystems and cultures of the North.
This opportunity would have been impossible without the continued support of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which, through their Summer Internship Stipend program, funds students to participate in unpaid internships and research opportunities at Non-Governmental Organizations. In many fields, competitive and engaging undergraduate experiences are often unpaid, leaving these invaluable experiences out of reach to people from low-income backgrounds. Growing up under the poverty line in the Twin Counties, I believed opportunities like this were always out of reach, like something that could only happen to “other people.” With its support, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has leveled the playing field and allowed me to break a glass ceiling as a first-generation college student and woman in science.
During my time in Churchill, I will work to measure the amount of methyl-mercury in the local ecosystem by collecting and processing vegetation and animal tissue samples. This research is important because methylmercury is a potent neurotoxin that is known to cause developmental issues in children, as well as neurological issues in adults.
Humans are most often exposed to methylmercury by the consumption of fish.
Methylmercury makes its way up the food chain through a process called biomagnification. Elemental mercury in an ecosystem can be transformed to toxic methylmercury by microorganisms. Small animals then consume plants like algae that have been exposed to methylmercury, and some of it accumulates in their bodies. When those animals are eaten by predators, the methylmercury then begins to accumulate in the predator, and the amount increases over time. This process is magnified up the food chain. Methylmercury biomagnification can have serious consequences for human health if fish with high levels of methylmercury are ingested by humans, specifically by women of child bearing age. This is why there are sometimes warnings against consumption of top predatory fish like tuna and swordfish. The larger and longer lived the predatory fish, the more likely they are to have toxic amounts of methylmercury in their bodies.
Due to human induced climate change, the Arctic is warming at a rate twice that of the global average. This has large impacts both for the local ecosystem, and globally. Frozen in the Arctic permafrost is the largest pool of naturally occurring mercury on the planet, estimated to be larger than all the mercury that has currently been released by human activities like mining and the burning of fossil fuels combined. Melting permafrost could potentially release significant amounts of mercury into the Arctic ecosystem, where it could make its way up the food web to humans. There are currently limited records of mercury accumulation in the subarctic region, so my study will be the first to measure baseline levels, so future research can track if there has been a change over time.
I am eager for this experience to add to my understanding of the challenges these precious ecosystems are facing so that I may become a strong, reliable voice for the environment in the future. I am forever grateful for my time at Nash Community College in Dr. David Beamer’s Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution Lab. My hands-on research experiences at Nash have snowballed into opportunities for both self and scientific inquiry I never thought possible. I am reminded almost daily of how special and rewarding my time in Dr. Beamer’s lab at Nash Community was, and can’t wait to see what the future holds as I get to explore the world through an ecological lens.