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Living on the Edge: Microbes in Extreme Environments

Location: Region east of the Sierra Mountains, California, U.S.A.
Faculty: Jason Tor, Associate Professor of Microbiology (NS)
Course Number: TBD
Departure Date (tentative): May 23, 2018 Return Date: June 6, 2018
Course Fee (tentative): $2,100 + airfare

Course Summary

In this field-based research course students will study life in extreme environments in the region east of the Sierra Mountain range in California, which is one of the most geologically and biologically dynamic parts of the continent. While the primary focus is on the geomicrobiology of hot springs, alkaline lakes, and hyperarid environments; we will also consider some of the natural history, human history, and contemporary environmental issues facing this unique and environmentally vital area. For a portion of the trip students will have an opportunity to lead an in-depth analysis of the microbiology in Deep Springs Lake, an alkaline playa lake where microorganisms might be directly contributing to carbonate mineral formation. The over-arching goals of this trip are for students to learn how to successfully conduct a field-based scientific investigation within a broader context of environmental, historical, and social dynamics.

Prerequisites

The course is open to all students however previous completion of courses in microbiology, ecology, or geology would be beneficial.  

A brief questionnaire and interview will be required for acceptance. 

Eligibility

Short-term field course eligibility requirements (for Hampshire and non-Hampshire students)

Financial Information

Short-term Field Course Finances and FundingImportant information about fees, payments, and financial aid.

Course Fee

Approximately $2,100 includes all on-site expenses for the following for the 2 weeks of the program: speakers/guides, equipment and facilities, accommodations, transportation, meals, course-related activities and orientation costs.

Additional Expenses (costs not included in the course fee)
Approximately $700 to include airfare to and from Las Vegas McCarran Airport (~$500), meals during transit, transportation to and from U.S. airport, and personal expenses. 

How to Apply

Short-term field course application deadlines and instructions

Full Course Description

This course is a two-week long field-based research course that will directly introduce a group of 6 undergraduate students to microbial life in extreme environments. The course will take place in the region east of the Sierra Mountains in California where unique ecosystems (hydrothermal springs, high deserts, alkaline lakes, alpine meadows and forests), cultural history (indigenous people, early mining and exploration, internment), and environmental issues (development issues, water use, and environmental contamination) offer a rich mixture of possible learning experiences. The variety of destinations will include the Bristlecone Pine Forest, Death Valley National Park, Deep Springs Lake, Eastern California Museum, a geothermal energy producer, Hot Creek Gorge, Lake Crowley, Lee Flat (Joshua Trees), Manzanar National Historic Site, Mono Lake, Owens Lake bed (dry), and the Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center.

The readings for the course will come from a variety of sources, including the primary research literature, textbooks, field guides, technical articles, and materials from the popular press. Through active research, readings, and discussions, students should be able to do the following:

  • Explain how scientists make sense of the complexity in real-world habitats that are home to diverse microorganisms.
  • Critique the investigative approaches that can be used to yield information that enhances our understanding of the role microorganisms play in maintaining Earth’s habitability.
  • Explain microorganisms survive in soils, sediments, and water under extreme conditions.
  • Gather the kinds of observational information that can be used to understand the role of microorganisms in the environment.
  • Assess how geologic processes contribute to the diversity of life found across the landscape.
  • Explain the interaction between abiotic processes and the evolution of ecosystems.
  • Evaluates contemporary environmental issues (land-use, energy policy, environmental remediation) specific to the region relate to biogeochemical processes.

Cumulative Skills

  • Quantitative skills

Distribution Areas (Div I):

  • Physical and Biological Sciences (PBS)

Academic Expectations

All students will be expected to keep a comprehensive field notebook throughout the duration of the course. This journal can, in the first instance, be a simple account of their activities and scientific observations, but more importantly this should be a reflective journal – students will be asked to think and write about their experiences and relationships with their environment and activities. The student’s journals will be collected at the completion of the course and be used in their final evaluations. The best journals will go beyond description, and will show evidence of deep and thoughtful engagement with the ideas of the course, research methods, and the act of conducting scientific investigation within the context of the region. There will be readings and discussion about a wide range of issues from diverse fields, including agriculture, environmental science, microbiology, geology, biochemistry, natural resources, social and cultural history. Attendance and participation in all pre-trip meetings and participation in discussions of all assigned material is expected.

Program Itinerary

Day 1 (5/23/18): Arrival.
-Arrive in Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport by 6 pm. Evening discussion of the trip will focus getting to know each other, as well as a review of expectations and safety. Sleep in a hotel/hostel in Las Vegas.
Day 2: Death Valley National Park
-Introduction to the national park, basin and range geology, and a discussion of the science of borax mineralization, the history of the mining industry, desert geomorphology and desert
ecosystems. Visits to Dante's View, Badwater Salt Pan, Devil's Golf Course, and Furnace Creek. Sleep in Death Valley.
Day 3: Death Valley National Park, part 2.
-Further exploration of Death Valley region, including Stovepipe Wells sand dunes, the Panamint Range; discussion of rock varnish geomicrobiology in Panamint Valley; Joshua Trees in Lee Flat. Sleep in Lone Pine, CA.
Day 4: Owens Lake
-Water Rights and the Effects of Diversion (desiccation, environmental quality, biogeochemistry). Observe earthquake-related structures in Alabama Hills as well as Mt. Whitney. Sleep in Lone Pine, CA.
Day 5: History of the Owens River Valley
-Manzanar National Historic Site and the Eastern Sierra Museum. Sleep at the White Mtn. Research Center, Bishop, CA.
Day 6: Research at Deep Springs Lake
-Assessing the site and surveying springs. Sleep at the White Mtn. Research Center, Bishop, CA.
Day 7: Research at Deep Springs Lake
-Geochemcial analysis of the springs and sediment. Sleep at the White Mtn. Research Center, Bishop, CA.
Day 8: Research at Deep Springs Lake: Deploying in situ samplers
Sleep at the White Mtn. Research Center, Bishop, CA.
Day 9: Research at Deep Springs Lake
-Sampling springs and sediment for microbiological analysis. Sleep at the White Mtn. Research Center, Bishop, CA.
Day 10: Wrap up research at Deep Springs Lake and visit Bristlecone Pine Forest
-Study the effects of geologic parent material on soil chemistry and plant ecology. Sleep at the White Mtn. Research Center, Bishop, CA.
Day 11: Geochemistry and microbiology of Lake Crowley, a human-constructed reservoir lake
-Sleep at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory.
Day 12: Hot Creek Hydrothermal System
-Study of hydrothermal systems, including spring-water chemistry and hyperthermophilic microorganisms; sampling methods. Discussion of water quality and environmental impact on water quality. Sleep at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory.
Day 13: Mono Lake and Bodie
-Study and tour of the south tufa area of Mono Lake. Discussion of lake chemistry, microbiology, and limnology. Guided exploration of Bodie, CA, an abandoned mining village. Sleep at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory.
Day 14: Guided tour of geothermal energy plant
-View the columnar basalts at Devil’s Postpile National Monument. Final evening wrap-up and celebration. Sleep at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory.
Day 15: Departure.
-Prepare research samples for travel and pack up gear. Return to Las Vegas in the afternoon, students are free to depart after 5 pm.

Travel Plans

Students are expected to make their own travel arrangements to and from Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport (LAS).  Students will need to arrive on May 23, 2018 by 6 pm. Students should schedule departure no earlier than 5 pm on June 6; early departure is not acceptable. Transportation to/from the airport will only be provided on May 23 and June 6.

Housing Arrangements

The majority of the trip will be spent at the White Mountain Research Center in Bishop, CA, and the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory. Both stations support college-level research and teaching throughout the region and are a convenient location in the center of most of our activities. They will provide room and board, as well as lab and classroom.

Accommodations in Las Vegas, Death Valley and Lone Pine will be at a hotel or hostel. 

Pre-departure Preparation

There will be at least two group meetings with the faculty directors prior to departure to go over academic expectations, living and research conditions, and safety protocols. Students are also required to participate in a session with GEO on culture and identity, health and safety, study abroad policies and important travel information.

Questions?

Questions about the application and selection process or financial aid should be directed to the global education office:

Heather St. Germaine
hstgermaine@hampshire.edu
413.559.5542

Questions regarding the academic content or itinerary should be directed to the faculty directors:

Jason Tor
jtor@hampshire.edu 

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