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Fishing for deep-sea spiders: an Antarctic expedition

CMU doctoral student studies in the South Pole

Contact: Curt Smith

​Central Michigan University doctoral student Erin Collins traded in one month of summer in northern Michigan for a month of winter in Antarctica to study sea spiders with the National Science Foundation.

The 25-year-old Traverse City native was one of 16 students selected internationally by the NSF to spend her summer working alongside researchers from Canada, Australia, England and Denmark.

“I had interest in going to Antarctica because I was working with specimens from Antarctica,” Collins said.

Collins studies Earth and ecosystem sciences at CMU, and specifically sea spiders, where she was introduced to the research opportunity by one of her lab mates. The following summer, Collins packed her bags, flew from Detroit to Chile and then boarded the L.M. Gould, which took her to Palmer Station, the United States’ research facility.

On campus, Collins extracts DNA from sea spiders to better classify the creatures. Her interest in sea spiders stems from the fact that, although they can be found in all oceans, scientists have difficulty identifying their phylogenetic position in the tree of life.

The Antarctic researchers left Palmer Station on several occasions to explore glaciers or collect samples to analyze through collection cruises. The cruises lasted several days and entailed sending trawls to the bottom of the ocean to collect the desired organisms, like Collins’ sea spiders.

“Nothing we collected I had seen alive before,” Collins said. “Because even though I’m doing ocean work, I grew up in Michigan and haven’t seen a lot of this stuff with my own eyes.”

​Sea spiders in Antarctica are found in abundance and exhibit gigantism. The creatures, which Collins says resemble a bundle of sticks, can range from the size of a quarter to the size of a person’s face.

“We had a month there, and we were all really excited about our projects that we were working on,” Collins said. “There were a lot of big ‘Wow, I never thought I’d get to do this,’ moments.”

Collins said the experience not only gave her research experience, but also guidance for her future career.

“I met a lot of people that were a bit further along in their careers,” Collins said. “One of the instructors had been teaching and going to Antarctica for 30 years, so I got a lot of really great career advice – and also life advice if you are in this career – which was super helpful.”

Collins, who earned her undergraduate degree in ecology from Michigan Technological University, hopes to continue her work with a postdoctoral position in a research lab.

Read more about Collins’ journey and view photos on her blog.

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