2023 2023: Biology class studies microbial diversity in Iceland

2023 2023: Biology class studies microbial diversity in Iceland
Biology class studies microbial diversity in Iceland

Students earn three credits in two weeks with European peers

Biology students investigating microbiomes in Iceland
Students sample small thermal pools looking for heat-tolerant organisms at a beach in Iceland's northeast coast.

A great teacher takes their students' minds outside the classroom, bringing them to a practical, real-world environment to apply the lesson at hand. In biology professor Mark Silby's case, that means organizing a two-week course in Akureyri, Iceland where 13 UMassD students traveled to earn academic credit conducting research on an environmentally diverse island.

The class also met their peers and instructors from the University of Akureyri (Iceland) and the University of Reading (U.K.), collaborating to learn about and apply ideas in research design, get practical experience with microbiology field work, collect samples from various locations in northern Iceland, and spend time in the lab conducting experiments that they designed.

Biology students investigating microbiomes along the shore in Iceland
Students sample "slimy" masses of growth at a rocky beach in Ytri Vik, where geothermal water heats nearby cottages.

"Students who take this course receive multiple life experiences as well as scientific and academic experiences. They learn about international travel, spend time building relationships with students from other cultures, and learn to understand both themselves and other cultures better," said Silby.

"That's supplemented by their science experiments, which are very unique, intensive, and hands-on lab experiences. It's bigger than just the science. It's cultural and social, and their confidence really grows throughout the trip."

Silby chose Iceland because of the country's diverse microbiological environments. Sitting just outside the Arctic Circle but straddling the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, the island presents unique and challenging environments for microorganisms to grow. In a country roughly the size of Ohio, microbes adapt to the extreme cold of glacial ice and extreme heat of geothermal springs and runoff.

"Volcanic soils offer very low nutrient content, making some of these locations Mars-analog sites," said Silby. "NASA sends life-detecting equipment to practice detecting organisms in Iceland before sending them to Mars, so students got a lesson in astrobiology as well."

Few undergraduate microbiology students get a chance to collect samples in unique fields and bring them back to a laboratory. The discovery-based class of juniors and seniors spent time developing hypotheses, attending lectures, and developing sampling strategies to fulfill their coursework. Outside class hours, the group engaged in ice-breaking activities with students from Iceland and the U.K., and experimented with local cuisine, such as, "hákarl" (fermented shark).

"I really enjoyed being in a different lab and learning new techniques with people who share a common interest from all over," said Eva Lavoie '23. "Even though I love and appreciate my experience at UMassD and in Dr. Silby's lab, it was really cool and challenging for me to work with new, unknown bacteria and to have to think outside the box to create a project with the samples I collected. This entire experience has not only made me a better biologist, but also a better person." 

Biology major working in a lab at the University of Akureyri (Iceland)
Lavoie working in a laboratory at the University of Akureyri (Iceland).

The class earned three credits over the span of just two weeks, meaning the course was very intensive, oftentimes running 8am to 6pm between lectures, fieldwork, and lab work. To ease logistical concerns for students, the biology department coordinated with the international programs office and the university's travel agent to book flights, and with the host university to cover lodging, ground transport, and some meals. Students received a one-time fee covering the trip's logistical expenses.

"The experiences I took away from this trip are invaluable to a graduating biologist," said Aiden Braastad '23. "From the connections I made with students and professors from the U.K., Alabama, and Iceland, to the hands-on experience collecting and experimenting with my own samples. It was an incredible guided introduction to what it means to be a working biologist. Firsthand experience is everything in science, and this trip was exactly that and so much more."

Biology major Aiden Braastad wading into a fjord with his counterparts from the University of Akureyri (Iceland)
Braastad wading into a fjord with his counterparts from the University of Akureyri.

Once an annual trip, this was Silby's first time bringing a class overseas since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Next year, he plans to bring a group of students to Colombia. The opposite of Iceland, the tropical environment allows for rapid turnover of nutrients, meaning life grows quickly, but so do disease-spreading organisms. Silby's Colombian peers are interested in harvesting local microorganisms to control disease with biotechnology instead of using fungicides and pesticides. 

Plans for next year's trip won't be final until March 2024, but students interested in attending should contact Professor Silby at mark.silby@umassd.edu. Applications will be due in mid-February, pending confirmation from Colombian hosts. 


Iceland TV ran a short segment on the group's mission.