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yancy at sea

The largely unexplored Mariana Trench is the deepest trench in the world, and there may be unknown species lurking in its depths. Professor of biology Paul Yancey is set to continue his exploration of the ocean’s depths as a part of the Hadal Ecosystems Studies (HADES) project, an international multidisciplinary research effort, alongside two Whitman students, Anna Downing ’16 and Chloe Weinstock ’17.

On their first expedition last spring to the Kermadec Trench, the team discovered many new species and an unexpected abundance of life.

Of his student researchers, Yancey said: “I have known for a long time that they are passionate about this kind of marine biological research, and both have experience from high school in marine biology.”

This year, they are headed to the Mariana Trench. They hope to know more about how organisms adapt to the crushing pressures of the deepest parts of the ocean, and to investigate potentially useful biochemicals that these organisms might contain.

On the ship, the team will work around the clock for 5 weeks without breaks. They will be deploying a variety of high-tech robotic “landers” that will film the seafloor, deploy traps to catch animals, scoop up rocks and sediment, and measure metabolic rates. Upon retrieval of landers, the team will dissect and preserve animals, sift through the mud for sea life, and analyze water samples and video frames. The team will also use multi-beam sonar to get 3D maps of the seafloor.

“Apart from the obviously amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do research on aspects of deep-sea science that have not yet been fully explored, I am mainly excited to just get out of the classroom and be able to do work in the exact field of biology I am most interested in,” Downing said.

“I did not expect to be able to get field experience until much later, so I’m definitely eager to actually get some hands-on knowledge and learn the skills I’ll need to be a good scientist.”

The team will work in shifts (called “watches”) in order to give others time to sleep and study. Downing and Weinstock will assist with all aspects of the research—helping to deploy and retrieve landers; sorting, identifying and dissecting animals; mud sifting; monitoring the 3D mapping; and working with the education outreach specialist on board. Back at Whitman they will do lab work on the specimens next summer with Yancey. 

“The experience could make a huge difference if they go on to marine biology after graduation,” Yancey said. “That's hard to predict, of course. But many students I've taken to sea in the past used their experiences as springboards to do exactly that; their going on an expedition is the single thing that got them into grad school.”

Whitman alumna Gemma Wallace ’14 participated in the Kermadec Trench expedition, while alumna Mackenzie Gerringer ’12 will be going to the Mariana Trench. She is currently studying for her master’s degree in marine biology from the University of Hawaii.

“As for the future, I’m planning to incorporate the research done on this expedition into my thesis,” Downing said. “I’m sure the valuable knowledge I gain will serve me well as I figure out what I want to do for a career. I’ve always wanted to do something in the area of marine science, and hopefully this expedition will help me narrow down further exactly what I want to do in the future.”

The HADES project (headed by University of Hawaii) is funded by the Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI). The crew will be using SOI’s advanced research vessel FALKOR. SOI was founded by Wendy Schmidt, and her husband Eric, the executive chairman of Google.