Join the Paths of Discovery
David Gruber went to the depths of two of the world's great seas in a quest to unlock the mysteries of the deep coral reef.
Marco Tedesco went to Greenland to take measure of the melting polar ice cap.
Will Harcourt-Smith went to Africa - and back 18 million years - in a search for bones of the oldest apes.
For these CUNY scientists, the summer of 2009 was a time to get out of the lab, out of the classroom, out of their New York enclosures - and into the field. Far afield. Their expeditions were each something to write home about - and so they did. The scientists helped launch the University's new Decade of Science website with blogs chronicling their adventures in words, pictures and video. For their blogs and more, go to www.cuny.edu/decadeofscience.
Here's a look at what three University researchers did on their summer vacations.
Investigating Deep Coral Reefs
David Gruber, assistant professor of biology and environmental science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, is a rare scientist who combines talent in the laboratory with an adventurous spirit. In his ongoing research into the physiology and evolution of the world's deepest coral reefs, the specimens he studies in the lab are corals he's collected himself.
In June, Gruber climbed into his scuba gear on Little Cayman Island and spent a week collecting coral from the warm waters of the Caribbean. Back in New York, he put the specimens in cryogenic storage for study under a grant from the National Science Foundation that also includes corals he collected on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. A few weeks later, Gruber was in Israel, diving for coral in the Red Sea.
Gruber's area of interest is the little-studied deep coral reefs - some as far down as 300 feet - and their relationship to those in shallower waters whose precarious status has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. He is most focused on fluorescent proteins, substances found in coral that could shed light on the physiology of the deep reef and lead to better under-standing of its connection to the shallow reef. "The shallow reef is under quite a bit of stress right now," says Gruber, "and if they are genetically connected it might mean the deep reef is just as vulnerable."
The reason there's been virtually no study of the deep reef - some as far down as 300 feet or more - is that getting to it is so difficult. "If you're diving with just compressed air, the limit is about 130 feet and you can't stay down longer than a few minutes," Gruber says. On Little Cayman, he was joined by two top research divers from South Florida who used an advanced method for deep dives - a mixture of oxygen, helium and nitrogen known as "trimix." The divers descended to 300 feet and returned with some of the deepest coral ever recovered from that area of the Caribbean.
In that way alone, the expedition was cutting-edge research. The deep-dive technique hasn't been readily available to marine scientists because it's expensive and requires a team of highly skilled technical divers. Ever the scientific adventurer, Gruber is training to make those deep dives himself when he returns to Little Cayman next summer. In the meantime, he'll be back there in January - this time with a contingent of CUNY students - teaching a course in tropical reef ecology.
Measuring a Melting Ice Sheet
Marco Tedesco, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at City College, went in the opposite direction from Gruber - and to decidedly less tropical waters.
Tedesco studies the melting of polar ice sheets and how it is contributing to the world's rising sea levels. It's well-known in his field that the Greenland "ice sheet" has been melting at an increasing rate in recent years, and that some of thewater accumulates in large ponds called supraglacial lakes. Accompanied by graduate student Nick Steiner and several hundred pounds of equipment, Tedesco flew to Greenland to take measurements that he would later compare to those taken by satellites. There was a spectrometer, a microcomputer and an underwater video camera, all to be transported around the lakes by a miniature remote-controlled boat equipped with GPS.
The boat turned out to be a little star-crossed. Tedesco tested it in the lake in Central Park a few weeks before departure, then shipped it to Greenland in a wooden crate. Six other crates of technical gear arrived as scheduled. The one containing the boat did not. It was missing for a week, threatening Tedesco's entire venture, for which he had planned nine months. Finally, it showed up, and the mission proceeded.
"Everything worked fine and the boat exceeded our expectations," Tedesco reports. "The remotely controlled boat reached up to half a mile from the lake edge and we were able to collect all the data we wanted to and even more." But on the last day of the expedition, Tedesco pressed the limits. He tied the little research vessel to a colleague's inflatable boat. Off it went. In the middle of the lake, it submerged. "He came back with our boat 3 feet below the surface. Everything was soaked - computers, instruments." Tedesco was philosophical: "There's no experiment without sacrifice." Of course, he said this after he knew the sacrifice was minimal. "We lost a four-hundred-buck computer, but we were able to recover the hard disk, and the GPS and spectrometer and it's amazing but all the instruments worked fine."
Besides taking their measure of the melting ice sheet, Tedesco and Steiner found something interesting in the ice itself. "People imagine the ice sheet being very bright, but it appears a little dark. There's this fine black powder called cryoconite, which we called kryptonite, of course. We collected samples to analyze. We found a lot of interesting things: meteor dust, soot from burned forests, gold, titanium. We even found radioactive material. So now we wonder how much this changes the melting."
Whatever his data ultimately reveal, Tedesco's first trip to the Arctic yielded one immediate discovery: He's no fan of the cold. Just a slight problem with his next trips to Greenland, Norway and northern Canada already in the works. "Maybe I have to change my field," he jokes. "I'll study coral and go to the Cayman Islands."
In Search of the Oldest Apes
There's no shortage of paleontologists searching Africa for the remains of our closest fossil ancestors. Most are after primates such as Lucy, who gained modern fame for walking upright three million years ago. Then there's Will Harcourt-Smith, a hunter-gatherer of much older fossils - those of apes that lived 18 million years ago.
Harcourt-Smith, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History who begins a faculty appointment at Lehman College this fall, spent several weeks this summer scouring Rusinga Island, in Kenya's Lake Victoria. It's been a hallowed place in paleontological circles since the 1930s, when a fossil ape called Proconsul - a genus considered to be between 14 and 23 million years old - was discovered there.
"I'm fascinated by the factors and conditions that led to the emergence of these creatures, and why they proliferated into so many different lineages," Harcourt-Smith blogged from his camp on Rusinga, where he was accompanied by a number of colleagues from other universities and three CUNY graduate students. "The wonderful thing about these islands is that they are still packed with fossils. And not just fossil apes. We have fossil plants and seeds, miniature insects, the remains of giant lumbering mammals, birds, reptiles, bats - you name it."
As they collected fossils, Harcourt-Smith and his colleagues conducted a series of geological analyses that they hope will allow them to accurately reproduce both the evolutionary events and environmental and ecological conditions on the island 18 million years ago. From this they can then explore how the changes in these conditions may have influenced the emergence of Proconsul and its cousins. "This year we're doing things with much greater precision," Harcourt-Smith said. "We've brought out a sophisticated piece of GPS equipment that tells you the exact geographical position of every single piece of fossilized bone you find on the ground. This will help us build up a more accurate picture of how the site was formed, what got preserved and what did not."
After three weeks in camp, Harcourt-Smith declared it "a terrific season." The team had found more than 1,000 identifiable fossils by then, along with thousands more "scrappy pieces." He gave a lot of credit to his CUNY students - Julia Zichello, Scott Blumenthal and Jenn Hodgson - who contributed to the excavation as well as to the blog.
"I can see why looking for fossils can be addictive," wrote Zichello, a doctoral student in biological anthropology on her first field work experience. "It's a lot like gambling. There is so much chance involved, 17 million years of possibilities. But unlike gambling, there's nothing to lose."