May 11: Back in the Lab

Carie preparing thin sections

Preparing thin sections in the walk-in freezer (my hands were very cold in this photo). Photo by Julianne

For me, back to the lab meant back to the walk-in freezer. Things went well all morning, but when we started back up after our cafeteria lunch (which included more of the fudge-like chocolate cake to which several of the team had become hopelessly addicted and which Bonnie described as “regrettably good”), things started to go south.

As one particularly-beautiful-looking thin section was nearing completion, a spider crack suddenly formed halfway through a scrape and the whole thing fell apart. I sawed off a new piece and tried again, but again once the sample was close to completion, it cracked and fell apart. I tried another, harder piece of ice, and the same thing happened. I tried a softer piece of ice and noticed that the scrapes were uneven and the blade was dragging. I pulled the blade off of the microtome, cleaned it, and reattached it, but the problem persisted. Three more cracked slides later, and I went to go ask Bonnie for advice. After pulling the microtome out of the coldroom to give it a closer inspection, we discovered that the problem was a wobble in the stage which had suddenly developed. We tried taking the microtome apart bit by bit, but when a pin suddenly fell out from somewhere in the guts of the thing, we decided to not keep going. In addition to being heavy, bladed beasts, microtomes also contain precision guts with gears and springs that are best left to people with a watchmaker’s eyes, hands, and experience. I did the best I could to cut the thinnest possible sections on our chop saw for the remaining samples, but our microtome was shot for the rest of the trip and there would be no more beautiful thin sections.


Carie, Bonnie, and Shelly trying to figure out what was wrong with the microtome. Photo by Julianne

That ended up being okay, because Team Microscopy was still struggling with the Unidentified Stuff in the samples that was making them impossible to interpret. The different cast of characters with their different experiences, different stains, and different objectives disagreed mightily on what certain glowing spots and patches were, which wasn’t making anyone feel confident in the meaningfulness of anything we were seeing. Stains were made and re-made and argued over. Control slides were made and re-made and argued over. After two full days of work at the microscope in the walk-in freezer, only one slide had been looked at…with only a few more days to go and frustration levels climbing, getting through over a dozen of them seemed less and less likely (in the end, they made it through three thin sections plus some controls).

Team Miroscopy

Julianne and Karen suit up to look at ice thin sections under the microscope in the freezer. Photo by Carie


At the microscope. Photo by Carie

The centrifuging and filtering was going well, except that the high sediment load was making things interesting and raising questions about how well some of the downstream analyses would work out. My incubation experiments (salvaged from their earlier explosion which had happened when I’d neglected to account for the fact that my samples were fresher after melting and would freeze up in the cold) seemed to be doing a fat lot of nothing. One of Bonnie’s new instruments was refusing to work in cold temperatures (despite manufacturer promises). We worked too late, the water pump WHOMPed at night, the cafeteria was out of fruit and the veggie selection was sad, and even chocolate cake wasn’t saving us.

Mother's Day Brunch

This was Mother’s Day brunch in the cafeteria. They ran out of fruit after this. It’s amazing how much you eat when you’re cold all the time. Photo by Carie

Lab discussions

Karen and Monica discuss a plan to move forward with an unidentified third person while Julianne takes notes. Photo by Carie

Bonnie took Karen and me out to the Chukchi Sea again for another optics day, which was a very welcome break from the lab. It was another warm day, but overcast and theoretically good for optics. Except that the pesky sun kept peeking out. We got to put some of Bonnie’s light-measuring instruments down into a borehole that we had popped a beautiful core out of in order to measure light intensity under the ice both with and without snow, as well as profiles going down into the ice, and albedo off of the snow and ice. Her new spectrometer was still misbehaving in the cold, so we opened it up and tried sticking chemical handwarmer packets in it, and then wrapping it in my down jacket, to try to get it to warm up and work. After that it occasionally would, so we were able to measure the spectrum of light under the ice and at the surface to see how the ice was absorbing light. Bonnie later reported that the chlorophyll of the bottom algal layer was obvious in the spectra she measured—cool! We also sent my GoPro down the hole to see what it looked like under the ice. We got some cool video footage of the algae on the bottom of the ice.

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Karen placing chemical handwarmer packets in an attempt to warm Bonnie’s radiometer. Photo by Carie

Bonnie Radiometer

Bonnie testing out the radiometer, now stuffed with handwarmers and wrapped in my favorite down jacket (the sacrifices you make for science!). Photo by Carie

Carie doing Albedo

Making albedo measurements while trying not to freeze since the radiometer had stolen my jacket. Photo by Carie

On the way back, we stopped to check out some fresh polar bear tracks. Not far from where we were working, locals had come out to dump old muktuk from last year to clear out the cellars for the fresh stuff. Free bear food! However, we didn’t see any bears.


Polar Bear Tracks

Polar bear tracks in the snow on the Chukchi Sea ice. Photo by Carie

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