Ilisagvik College recently received a second grant from the National Science Foundation Tribal Colleges and University Program (NSF-TCUP) for work on microbes in the arctic tundra.
The $200,000 grant over two years supports student research on the varieties and concentrations of microbes in permafrost, soil and nuna (tundra) vegetation around Utqiagvik. Specifically, students are looking for pathogenic bacteria that can impact human health when released by melting permafrost. Student worker Emily Weech describes it as “hunting an animal you can’t see.”
Linda Nicholas-Figueroa, an associate professor of biology and chemistry, is the project’s principal investigator. Apart from a one-year hiatus during the recent pandemic, the project has been ongoing for more than five years.
The students direct all aspects of the project, traveling to the field throughout the year to collect soil and ice samples with a core drill. They then process the samples, isolate and grow the bacteria, and extract the DNA. To identify bacterial species, samples are sent to professional biomedical laboratories for sequencing and analysis. The students then continue their research on the properties of these bacteria.
Students are also asked to present their findings at conferences, including the annual meeting of the American Society of Microbiology and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).
Two students, Daphne Mueller and Garrett Taylor, helped write the final report to the NSF for the first grant. Mueller and Taylor were dual credit students at Ilisagvik, taking college classes while attending Barrow High School in Utqiagvik. Both are now undergraduate students at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF).
The first grant supported research into microbes that may influence plants and animals in ways that may affect subsistence diets. During their research, the students found a very direct link to health when they found Mycobacterium simulans. M. simulans is a mycobacterium that can cause symptoms mimicking tuberculosis but requires different treatment. The second grant continues this work, looking for other pathogens or any changes in pathogen prevalence.
Nicholas-Figueroa points out that they are still establishing a baseline and that it is too early to draw conclusions. However, it is not too early to see the impact the work has on students. None of the students involved in the project had prior research experience, but several went on to study biomedical research and other science-related fields.
“When I was in high school, I thought research was something for these people who were mega brains,” says Nicholas-Figueroa. “It’s great that students are being exposed to this and getting paid.”
Weech, who is Nicholas-Figueroa’s current student, recently accompanied half a dozen high school students on the tundra with Nicholas-Figueroa, two meteorologists and five UAF researchers, also funded by the NSF, during a field trip for the Arctic Perspectives in Climate Change and Sustainability camp. The group drilled two soil and ice cores and measured carbon and methane levels as well as ground temperature. These cores will return to the -80 degree freezer that Nichols-Figueroa was able to purchase with a previous grant.
Between the two NSF-TCUP grants and a previous BLaST (Biomedical Learning and Student Training) grant through the UAF, Nicholas-Figueroa managed to turn the space into a Quonset – which had no safety shower or blueprints. flame-retardant workpieces upon arrival. 12 years ago – in a science class suitable for post-secondary research and teaching. Nowadays, the laboratory has proper floors, benches, vents and freezers, and is also equipped with digital microscopes, culture incubators, a portable DNA sequencing device and a suitable core drill .
Weech, who is a first-generation graduate, moved to Utqiagvik for the tuition waiver she was able to get in Ilisagvik. She graduated in April 2022 with a Certificate in Indigenous Education and an Associate of Arts degree in Liberal Arts and was on the President’s List with a GPA of 4.0. Weech was able to secure $7,500 in additional UAF grants to support his research on microbes.
“I’m in love with my job,” says Weech, “Every day I learn something new and I get to use my passion. It would be cool if I had a bacterium with my name on it.”
She hopes she can convey to students that no matter where they come from, they “can do it if they have the passion”.
For Nicolas-Figueroa, the best part is the “aha moment” for the students.
“I’m not a microbiologist,” she says, “It’s something I do because I want students to have the experience.”