My name is Kerry Whittaker, and I am a PhD Student at the University of Rhode Island, Graduate School of Oceanography. I study the remarkable molecular diversity of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are the primary producers of our ocean ecosystem; free-floating unicellular marine plants. By absorbing sunlight and carbon dioxide, phytoplanktonic organisms fix energy that supports oceanic life. They are important not only for supplying energy to upper trophic levels, but as an important step in the global carbon cycle. My research focuses on diatoms, a type of particularly productive phytoplankton. I use DNA to tell who’s related to whom, despite the fact that individual diatoms of the same species may appear to be identical under the microscope. Doing so allows me to ask interesting questions about how diatom populations are connected throughout the global ocean, and what environmental and physical factors contribute to their vast diversity and ecological success.
On this cruise, I am excited to be identifying the Krill “prey field,” or the krill’s menu daily menu. Doing so will allow us to compare the phytoplankton and zooplankton present in water to what the krill are eating. With this comparison, we can tell if the krill are selectively eating only their favorite foods, or if they are generalists, consuming whatever food is available. I will also be generating cultures of phytoplankton, filtering water for DNA extraction, and germinating resting spores (diatom “seeds” that lay dormant in the sediment for up to 100 years!) from sedimentary cores.
I love going to sea–it brings to the surface the creativity and excitement of being an oceanographer. I’m looking forward to the sights, the wildlife, the new scientific endeavors, collaborative relationships, and unexpected wonders that I’m sure this cruise will bring!