top of page

Internship at Biosphere 2, Arizona, USA by Gemma Purser

Gemma Purser is a final year PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh working with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and Forest Research

Standing tall in the middle of the Sonoran desert scrub are the futuristic shaped domes of Biosphere2, which form an impressive silhouette against the big skies of southern Arizona. The domes house a range of different ecosystems from rainforests to savannah and there is even a 2.6 million litre ocean. It is an overwhelmingly impressive place, both scenically, with the beautiful backdrop of the Catalina mountain range, but also historically, having been the basis of an experiment in which eight “Biospherians” (scientists) were sealed into the structure to investigate if humans could maintain life in on other planets.

My experience begins back in late August last year when I travelled to the USA for an internship. The internship was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council under the professional internship programme (PIP) with additional funding from the Overseas Research Visit and Conferences Fund via the E3 doctoral training partnership at the University of Edinburgh. I had come about the opportunity after a conversation with Dr Pawel Misztal (University of Texas at Austin) who was working as a researcher at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Edinburgh, when he told me about the experiment.

The project I joined was deemed the big finale experiment of a European Research Council (ERC) funded project (VOCO2), with additional funding and support from the University of Arizona. The huge process-based, ecosystem-scale experiment named B2WALD (Water, Atmosphere and Life Dynamics at Biosphere 2) was predominately the culmination of the ideas and efforts of three female scientists, Professor Christiane Werner (University of Freiburg, Germany), Professor Laura Meredith (University of Arizona, USA) and Dr Nemiah Ladd (University of Freiburg, Germany). The opportunity to work on a project with an all-female leadership team was really cool. There were, of course, many more researchers involved, I was just one of a huge team of scientists from

13 research institutions from the USA and Europe who were working on the project.

The project itself aimed to better understand the carbon fluxes in the form of carbon dioxide and secondary metabolites, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and water, within a rainforest ecosystem under drought stress and then how it would recover upon rewetting, first from below the soils and then from above, as rain. The innovative part of this experiment was the way the enclosed system could be manipulated and the use of carbon-13 to enable plant and microbial processes to be traced in real-time by the myriad of cutting edge technology including PTR-ToF-MS instruments, isotope analysers and an online TD- GC-MS too, all housed in a relatively small garden shed. This type of science, working at the interface of the biosphere and the atmosphere to better understand processes, fits well with my own research but also with my role as an early career committee member for iLEAPS, so I was super excited.

During my time on the B2WALD project I used the knowledge I had gained during my own PhD project to lead the sampling of VOC gases using an adsorbent cartridge method. These samples were then taken back to the University of Freiburg for later analysis by gas chromatography-ion ratio-mass spectrometry. The whole forest was littered with sample chambers of all shapes and sizes, containing leaves, stems, roots and soils of the 30 year old trees that towered endlessly towards the glass covered sky.

We collected over 1000 samples from each phase of the experiment; pre-drought, drought and the re-wetting of the ecosystem. In addition, I got to learn new science from watching and helping with different parts of the experimental set-up, through demonstrations of how to use instrument and from talking to other scientists. I learnt so much from the science evenings we had back in the casitas (Spanish word for a small house in Mexico and the southwest United States), where different members of the team would share their knowledge on a subject over our evening meal.

Any field campaign is initially a mental and physical hurdle that needs a little readjusting to start with, understanding the ways of new people, getting comfortable with new surroundings, and........... the local insect population, but that’s all part of the fun.

The plan for me was originally to stay 8 weeks, to help with the field sampling and learn some new techniques, but what actually happened was that I decided to stay a little longer! I don’t know what it is about these intense field campaigns, whether it’s the close relationship that you build with the team, the amazing locations or just the pure fascination of the science that you are starting to uncover, but I always find it so difficult when the time comes to leave.

The sense of achievement and the huge jump in personal development that comes from taking on a challenges, even those that might feel a little outside the comfort zone initially, are what makes these type of field campaigns all worth it in the end. You also gain a whole bunch of new friends too for your next conference! So from one early career scientist talking to another, who may have stumbled upon reading this blog, I just want to say, if you want to learn new science then never be afraid to seek opportunities or to ask for them, you never know what cool adventures they may lead you towards.

Thank-you for taking the time to read this blog and for being interested in the iLEAPS early career scientist network.

Finally, if you are interested in reading the scientific summary on what the B2WALD project achieved and the advances it has made towards the understanding of rain forest ecosystems under drought, then you should check out the EGU2020 sessions next week. If you are reading this blog after the EGU2020 event then you should take a look at the great interviews given by the leadership team or check out the project web pages listed below.

EGU session about the B2WALD project

BG3.25 Tracing Ecosystem Processes across Scales with Isotopes and other Novel Techniques

Convener: Christiane Werner | Co-conveners: Nemiah Ladd, Laura Meredith

Chat Thu, 07 May, 16:15–18:00

Video resources about the B2WALD project

Written articles about the B2WALD project

bottom of page