The Weddell Seal is able to hold its breath for 30 minutes at a time while diving in frigid Antarctic waters. To avoid running out of oxygen during this long dive, the seal collapses its lungs and restricts blood to only essential organs. In other mammals, the process of cutting off blood flow and the supply of oxygen to a tissue, only to reoxygenate those tissues at a later point (when the seal resurfaces) generates reactive oxygen species. The process causes oxidative stress, which damages the tissue. This summer I am studying some of the physiological adaptations that enable Weddell seals to avoid the detrimental effects of oxidative stress at a cellular level. At the moment I am focusing on catalase, an antioxidant enzyme that is good at breaking down hydrogen peroxide (a reactive oxygen species), to see if its activity is higher in seal tissues than in other mammals. The long-term goal of this research is to apply our understanding of how seals cope with oxidative stress to human organ transplants.
Realities of Research
This is my first time working in a lab so most everything has been entirely new to me, from the constant buzz of the -80 degree freezers to the techniques of growing cells to the precise technology. Besides learning many science skills, I’ve spent the last several weeks seeing how rare (and exciting!) it is for an experiment to work and yield significant results. Fingers crossed for the rest of my project!
Life of a Scientist
Besides working on my own research, I’ve been involved in numerous projects throughout the lab, so I’ve seen how research questions evolve and overlap and shift as researchers collaborate with one another. The aspect of collaboration within my lab has been one of the coolest things to witness this summer, especially since each researcher is doing distinct work. I’ve also loved getting to know my coworkers, and we’ve had cool conversations about new scientific discoveries and endless career options.
Throughout the summer, I’ve really appreciated being able to hold on to a big picture – of the real, live seals – even as I work at the microscopic, cellular level. I think this seal research is pretty darn cool.