Discover Your Island

Islander Graduate Student Returns from Her First Oceanic Expedition

November 06, 2017

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Deep in the ocean subsurface of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, in a region known as the North Pond, lives bacteria and other microorganisms that survive in extreme conditions. Megan Mullis, a Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi Ph.D. student studying marine biology with a focus on microbiology in extreme environments, voyaged to the North Pond on a five-week-long expedition. She returned to the Island University on Nov 3. With her, she brought back isolated culture samples collected from basaltic crust from 4,500 meters below the North Pond’s surface. The oceanic crust of the North Pond is relatively young, only eight million years old, and is located in a remote area of the Atlantic Ocean between the Caribbean and Africa. 

“My level of excitement for this expedition could not be put into words,” said Mullis. “I definitely counted down the days until I left for the trip.”

Mullis is studying under Dr. Brandi Kiel Reese, Assistant Professor of Microbial Ecology at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Reese has worked on this multidisciplinary project since the beginning in 2011 and continues to be actively involved. Mullis was chosen to go on the expedition this year by Reese for her positive attitude, her creative thinking and because she is a hard worker. From experience, Reese knows that working for a month at sea, with only the equipment brought with them, means field-going scientists often have to be like “MacGyver.”

“There are things you cannot teach in the classroom or read in a book,” said Reese. “Megan is getting a first-hand experience of the trials and tribulations of ocean research. She is getting a view of our world that few ever get to experience.”                                                                                                                     

Mullis has collected fluid samples from the Earth’s crust, which contain microscopic organisms. Collecting these samples was made possible through Circulation Obviation Retrofit Kits, also knowns as “CORKs.” CORKs seal holes drilled into the oceanic crust and scientists, like Mullis, use remotely operated vehicles to collect data. Reese describes CORKs as windows into a subsurface biosphere that allows scientists to better understand how life evolved on our planet.

Mullis’ samples will be used to selectively grow single-cell fungi. With previous work in the North Pond focusing on other microorganisms, Mullis wants to answer the question “will fungi to grow in a laboratory setting?”

“The samples can give us indications to the limits of life as well as how organisms adapt to extreme environments,” said Mullis. “This project will provide data that informs us on what the natural environment is like thousands of meters below the water’s surface.”

For Mullis, the expedition has been a constant state of learning. Thanks to the hands-on experience and getting to know other scientists, she has learned how samples are collected from the deepest depths of the ocean, the different factors to consider when collecting samples and how to prioritize certain samples. She says her favorite aspects of the expedition were not only the learning but also getting to know the scientists and crew on the ship.

“It has been wonderful to share stories and experiences with each other,” said Mullis. “The scientists all have extensive knowledge to share, and the crew members have incredible stories about other expeditions.”

After her first taste of adventure, Mullis hopes to go on other scientific expeditions in the future. To learn more about the Reese Geomicrobiology Lab and their adventures, awards and events, visit facebook.com/ReeseLab.