This July, 18 PhD students from 10 nations and all continents and 12 mentors took on a plane early morning from Quèbec to fly their way to Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuarapik. The mission was attending the International PhD School “Arctic Microbiomes” organized by Sentinelle Nord by the Université Laval.
What brought us all together is the shared interest in microbial life (organisms invisible to the bare eye, including bacteria, phytoplanktonic algae, fungi and viruses). These omnipresent groups of life are known to effect human well-being since centuries. Therefore, many technologies in the field of microbiology are usually driven by the need to understand illnesses as well as the effect of microbes in our intestines on our health. Nevertheless, the presence and effect of microbial life in our ecosystems, is often still a mysterious black box. Among the lecturers and students, hence a diversity of fields came together from analytical chemistry to astrobiology and remote sensing to finally several flavors of Arctic and Antarctic microbiology to understand and research the status of the “unseen” life in the Canadian Arctic.
For 10 days we experienced the whole range of fieldwork during wild weather conditions and had the chance to board a helicopter to see rare permafrost sites, took on a boat into the ice-sheet filled Hudson Bay, measured soil contamination and sampled salad-sized assemblies of cyanobacteria (single cell organisms forming thick mats here). All this was possible through the guidance and input of some of the most renowned mentors in these fields as well as the latest state of technology – despite the otherwise remote settings of the CEN station. This enabled us – within 2 days after sampling – to sequence metagenomes and thereby draw conclusions on the communities from all sampled sites.
Also, we all connected on more than a professional level, when sharing community meals in the infamous kitchen, fighting off swarms of mosquitos and black flies, having the honor to join Cree gathering and teepee building, roasting sausages at camp fire, exchanging languages and reaching out to the locals in a small science workshop in the supermarket. This school fused personal and professional scientific interest with understanding our research’s impact on local communities. Science communication was not just enacted here to curious children’s eyes, but also in a live-streaming to visitors from the National History Museum London, just before enjoying a great last day by the Hudson Bay, watching the ice melting and dripping in the sun.