Mercyhurst Magazine Summer 2016

Left: Drew Spacht ‘13 studying in Antarctica. Right: Mike Elnitsky studying in Antarctica.

Student, teacher share passion for Antarctica When Drew Spacht ‘13 studied biology at Mercyhurst, it was Professor (now Dean) Mike Elnitsky who got him hooked on the study of insects. Drew later followed in his mentor’s footsteps, frst to grad school in biology – and now all the way to Antarctica.

Just reaching Palmer Station is a challenge. Drew took three fights totaling about 24 hours to reach Punta Arenas, Chile, at the southern tip of South America. Then he boarded the research vessel Laurence M. Gould to journey for several more days across some of the toughest seas in the world. The station on Anvers Island ofers comfortable accommodations, but little privacy, to the 44 people who live there during the summer research season (winter in the Northern Hemisphere), when the station enjoys about 19 hours of daylight. From that base, Drew used a Zodiac, a rigid infatable boat, to explore and gather specimens from 30 small islands that surround Anvers. Drew calls the Antarctic a “perfect outdoor research lab.” Dr. Elnitsky adds, “I remember being humbled by the sheer size of everything, and realizing how insignifcant I am in the big picture of things.”

Midway through a doctoral program in insect physiology at Ohio State, he lived and worked at the remote Palmer Research Station from Jan. 8 to March 18 and will return for a second season in December. Elnitsky traveled to Palmer in 2006 and 2007 during his own graduate work at Miami University of Ohio and says he’s enjoying reliving those experiences through his student. Both men worked on an ongoing Ohio State/Miami project that focuses on Belgica antarctica , a wingless midge that’s the only true insect found on Antarctica. Though Belgica is only 2 to 6 mm long, it’s the continent’s largest terrestrial animal. It’s also amazingly resistant to all kinds of stresses. The lack of wings may have been an evolutionary development to help the midge endure the region’s often windy conditions. Belgica can also withstand freezing, dehydration, lack of oxygen and more – so researchers continue to explore the strategies it uses to survive its harsh environment.

Both agree it’s not only a great place to do scientifc research, but also one of the most beautiful places in the world.

View a collection of Drew’s images from Palmer Station at .


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