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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Western marine scientist earns a trip to Alaska

The coastal Gulf of Alaska might not be a popular destination, but it is Suzanne Strom’s chosen region of study.

Strom is a senior marine scientist at Western’s Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes, and the coastal Gulf of Alaska is practically her second home.

Strom is a member of a research team that was recently awarded a $5.6 million grant to study ecology in the coastal Gulf of Alaska. The research team is a part of the Long-Term Ecological Research Program, funded by the National Science Foundation.

“I’ve been to sea in the Gulf of Alaska a lot, kind of a ridiculous amount of times,” Strom said.

The accomplished oceanographer has been conducting research there off and on for the past 30 years, starting when she was a graduate student at Harvard University in the early 1980s.

“There’s a lot to be figured out still,” Strom said.

“Pretty much every paper that I publish about that ecosystem is the first paper on that [topic], very little is known so we are still finding new things,” Strom said. “I don’t have a lot of competition that I’m worrying about.”

Though Strom was quick to make light of her own accomplishments, that does not mean that she has gone without recognition.

This program that Strom was selected to participate in is tasked with answering important questions regarding the coastal Gulf of Alaska. The program has 25 different research sites in distinct locations across Alaska, the contiguous United States and on some islands in the Caribbean and Pacific.

“This is a new project that builds on and extends an existing projects,” Strom said. “The exciting thing is that it is part of a bigger program.”

The program intends to create a comparative network for scientists to look at similarities and differences in biomes across North America, the Caribbean and parts of the Pacific Ocean.

Their stated goal is to curate “long-term ecological knowledge [that] contributes to the advancement of the health, productivity, and welfare of the global environment,” according to the program’s website.

“The idea is that we can better learn about basic ecological principles by comparing how different processes work across these different ecosystems” Strom said. “The more wild and diverse the things you’re comparing, the better.”

Strom described their team’s particular research site as being 150 miles of sampling sites in a line in the ocean, going from the shallower water out to what is considered the deep coast. The site is called the Seward Line, as it is nearest to the city of Seward, Alaska. Strom said that the site has been regularly sampled since 1998, and that it is the backbone of their new project.

Strom briefly described the process of taking samples from the Seward Line, during one of the research cruises that her team will conduct.

“You get on the boat, you go out there and you stop at a station. You observe and sample and measure a lot of things in various ways. You drop instruments over the side [to] capture samples of water at different depths and we can do all sorts of analysis on those to see what all of the single-celled plant life is like.”

Strom said she plans to involve undergraduate students from Western in her research. She hopes to bring them on one of the research expeditions, and to include them in data processing and site sampling.

Strom knows from personal experience how important it can be for undergraduates to be directly involved in research programs.

When Strom was a Sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont, she was a prospective English major but decided to take a biology class because she thought it would be interesting. She heard about a summer internship for a marine lab on Chesapeake Bay for undergraduates from one of her lab partners.

“I had spent the last summer making airplane meals at Air la Carte at Bradley Field in Connecticut, waking up at 4:30 in the morning.”  

She wanted a change.

She decided to apply for the program. After working with scientists at Chesapeake Bay, Strom was hooked.

“We got our feet wet right away, so I guess you could say that’s good inspiration for taking some undergrads with me, because it can be life changing,” Strom said. The program could provide a similar opportunity for Western undergraduates.

“It was pure chance. I was not one of these kids who grew up thinking that they were going to be a marine biologist. Some people are very directed, I wasn’t,” Strom said. “It was the right time in my life for something big and interesting to grab me, that had to do with the outdoors and the natural world.”

Another part of the program is to involve students in kindergarten through high school, with a community outreach program. Strom, who identifies as an amateur dancer and musician, hopes to add some creativity to the outreach program.

“I think that [creativity] really helps reach people who don’t have a science background and who might feel like it’s intimidating or complicated,” Strom said. “If you can connect with people emotionally through story or various forms of art, I think you can really get them engaged.”

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