Toronto native Justine Ammendolia grew up next to Lake Ontario, but she always dreamed of the sea.
“I moved to Guelph for my undergraduate degree and every week, as I went to my Marine Ecological Processes class, I would pass by horses and cows, which left something to be desired,” said the current Memorial master’s student in ocean sciences.
“I wanted to study marine sciences.”
While at Guelph, she had her first taste of field work, conducting intertidal research at Vancouver Island’s Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.
In her final year of study, she worked with the National Geographic Society (NGS) and was the first student at her university to get the NGS Young Explorer’s Grant. The scholarship allowed her to spend the summer in a remote hunting cabin in Greenland doing research on Arctic seabirds, a trip that wrapped up a week before she landed in Newfoundland and Labrador to begin her studies at Memorial in 2014.
“I was fresh off the boat, and jumped right into my master’s studying invertebrate ecology with Dr. Annie Mercier at the Ocean Sciences Centre,” said Ms. Ammendolia. “Finally, I was right by the ocean and I had my dream job.”
She says one of the best parts of studying and working at Memorial is the Cold-Ocean Deep-Sea Research Facility at the Ocean Sciences Centre. Ms Ammendolia says she gets to be “the guinea pig” on some of the new equipment there, such as the Incubateur Pressurisé pour l’Observation et la Culture d’Animaux Marins Profonds, or IPOCAMP, which is essentially a high-pressure tank.
“There are only eight of them in the world and we have two here at Memorial – the first in North America.”
Using the IPOCAMPs, researchers can study marine life that lives at depths between 200 and 3,000 meters by creating deep-sea pressure in a lab, basically with a turn of a knob. Ms. Ammendolia conducted test runs with the new equipment and set the baseline for experiments that had never been done at the university.
“My initial test runs were to make sure the systems worked and to set the parameters for students who would do other studies in the future,” she said.
“But after all the test runs were done, I used different invertebrates — sea urchins, sea stars, sea cucumbers — the really fun, charismatic guys, and stuck them in the tank and essentially took them on a little trip down to the deep sea.”
Ms. Ammendolia started the animals at depth pressures they normally live in and monitored their movement and feeding before gradually increasing the pressure to lower and lower depths to see how it affected their behaviour.
“Biologists predict that climate change is going to completely change our oceans, with animals from shallow water areas migrating to deep-sea environments, almost like refugees,” said Ms. Ammendolia.
“The goal of my research was to see if these animals could really survive at deep-sea pressures and these lab experiments might be able to give us insight into what could happen in nature.”
Ms. Ammendolia left the province recently, after she submitted her thesis for review. She hopes to continue working in marine conservation research while writing some publications based on research conducted for her thesis. Her eventual goal is to enrol in a PhD program at a university in Canada when the time is right.
“Memorial’s taught me a lot in terms of professional development,” she said.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who are in PhD programs and I’ve gained a lot of valuable insight as to what would be the best tactic to actually go out in the world and make my degrees work for me.”
“A better understanding of how Arctic animals react can give us perspective from a global standpoint.”
She says she would love to explore the Canadian Arctic and conduct science there, especially considering how it ties into her research project.
“One of the really interesting things about shallow-water to deep-sea migration, is that if it does occur in the future because of climate change, we’re going to see these effects most notably within the Arctic systems. A better understanding of how Arctic animals react can give us perspective from a global standpoint.”
While her time at Memorial has come to an end, Ms. Ammendolia says the experience changed her life, exposing her to new ideas and changing the way she thinks, not only about marine sciences, but how people fit into that equation.
“Learning from people there and getting the perspective of folks who have been around the ocean or worked on it for a long time, was an incredible opportunity. Also, the international connections at Memorial and the variety of researchers that come through there has made it an interesting environment to work in.
“Hopefully all the blood, sweat and tears I put into those IPOCAMP experiments pays off for the next generation of graduate students. The fact that you don’t have to spend $60,000 in deploying remotely operated vehicles, you can go into a lab facility and recreate that environment, it’s a really exciting opportunity for researchers. I am glad to have been a part of it.”