Next Generation: Chelsea Wegner on Shrinking Sea Ice

February 19, 2020

Advisor: Lee Cooper
Degree: Ph.D. in Earth & Ocean Sciences

What is the focus of your research?
Arctic sea ice has drastically declined over the past two decades. The base of the Arctic food web starts with algae growing within/on sea ice and open water phytoplankton blooms, which are both food for zooplankton in the water and organisms like clams and worms on the seafloor. It is thought that the ice algae is important due to timing and quality of this food source compared to phytoplankton. My research is looking for signatures of ice algae contributions throughout the Bering and Chukchi Sea using unique sea ice biomarkers. I am measuring these biomarkers in sediments, benthic organism tissues, and in the diets of top Arctic predators, like the Pacific walrus, to serve as an indicator of sea ice loss impacting the structure of the Pacific Arctic food web.

Why is your research important?
The Arctic is changing rapidly and the biological impacts of declining sea ice are still not fully understood. Sea ice algae are one of the more elusive components of this ecosystem. Until we can determine how significant their contribution is to the food web, we cannot say with certainty how the ecosystem will respond to declines. My research utilizes a rapidly emerging technique that allows us to measure this high-quality food source relative to open water phytoplankton blooms. This method has been underdeveloped for the Pacific Arctic region relative to the rest of the Arctic and my research will lay the groundwork for future studies looking to apply this method for monitoring future changes.

What influenced your career path in science?
I think it is in my blood that I have this connection to the ocean and science. My grandfather was a nuclear engineer and naval architect who served as Deputy Director for the Navy’s nuclear program. He always had artwork and books around depicting the allure of being out at sea. We spent our summers at his “beach house” on the tidal Potomac River in Colonial Beach, VA where there were model ships he built proudly on display, and we would all sit on the pier to fish or pull up crab pots. I loved the idea of exploring the oceans like in the Jacques Cousteau books I flipped through.  Since I was a child, I could spend hours on a beach, combing for marine life, or playing in the waves. I feel very fortunate that I actually do get to explore and study the oceans for a living.

Why did you decide to study at UMCES' Chesapeake Biological Laboratory?
After I completed my Master’s Degree at the University of South Carolina, I moved to Washington, D.C. for the Knauss Marine Science and Policy Fellowship. I stayed on to work for the government with NOAA’s Ocean and Atmospheric Research followed by a few years at NSF in the U.S. Antarctic Program. I had always contemplated pursuing my Ph.D. and felt that I needed it to take my career further in the direction I wanted. I was looking for a reputable program that met my research interests in polar ocean sciences and was close to D.C. The Arctic Research Laboratory at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory provided me the perfect opportunity to do this and still be close enough to continue fostering my network with the government.

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
UMCES' Chesapeake Biological Laboratory has supported my research and education so far through grants and scholarships. This sense of support from within my own institution has allowed me the flexibility and freedom to pursue research questions that interest me. I’ve also found that all of the faculty here have a collaborative spirit and are always willing to get involved and offer their support. The Chesapeake Biological Laboratory is a small community of enthusiastic scientists and I’ve really come to appreciate that.

What are your future plans?
I plan to pursue a career as a research scientist in either academia or the federal government. I’ve also considered the possibility of starting a non-profit organization further along in my career which specifically focuses on science and policy issues in our polar regions.

Have you received a scholarship, grant, travel award or gift from a donor? What did it allow you to do and why was that important? 
The Ruth Mathes Award (through the Cove Point Trust) allowed me the startup funds required to get my project off the ground. This $2500 award was essential to allow me to purchase all of my laboratory supplies, rapidly progress and get a head start in my program.