Ariel Waldman: What Can We Learn From Microscopic Life In Antarctica?

Mar 19, 2021
Originally published on September 10, 2021 11:41 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Through The Looking Glass

Many people think of Antarctica as desolate. But wildlife filmmaker Ariel Waldman says the coldest continent is brimming with invisible life — that can only be seen through microscopes.

About Ariel Waldman

Ariel Waldman is a wildlife filmmaker whose work captures microscopic life in Antarctica. She is also the chair of NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts project for developing long-term aerospace travel programs.

Waldman wrote the National Academy of Sciences report on the future of human spaceflight, and the science book What's It Like In Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who've Been There.

She serves as the global director of Science Hack Day, a grassroots endeavor to "make weird, silly or serious things with science." She was also the host and producer of Offworld, a show on Adam Savage's Tested. In 2013, she received an honor from the Obama White House for being a Champion of Change in science.

Waldman is a graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
TED Radio Hour / NPR

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today, on the show, we are venturing Through the Looking Glass, extending our perception and exploring strange new worlds, including here on Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND)

ARIEL WALDMAN: So when you land on the packed snow runway in McMurdo, yeah, you don't see anything. It's just snow. So there's no trees. There's no bushes. There's no grass. There's none of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND)

WALDMAN: Most people think of Antarctica as really desolate. You know, it's covered with over a mile of ice in many locations. It's the coldest continent. It's also extremely dry. It's a polar desert. But the thing that I feel like a lot of people don't know about Antarctica is that it's really brimming with life in a lot of different locations. It's just that most of it is invisible to us. You would need to have a microscope in order to see them.

ZOMORODI: This is Ariel Waldman. She's a wildlife filmmaker at the microbial scale.

WALDMAN: And I'm an adviser to NASA, and I'm also an Antarctic explorer.

ZOMORODI: Ariel first became interested in Antarctic microbes back in 2013. She was working with NASA, and she met astrobiologists who study Antarctica's extreme conditions and the life forms that actually thrive there.

WALDMAN: I had learned that a lot of biologists go to Antarctica, but they very rarely ever take any photos or videos of the creatures that they study there. And so I kind of saw an opportunity to really help both scientists and help people, you know, around the world actually get to see all this amazing stuff.

ZOMORODI: So that realization - that is what inspired you to basically become the first filmmaker to document these hidden ecosystems. But how did you go from that inspiration to making it happen?

WALDMAN: Yeah (laughter).

ZOMORODI: It couldn't - it could not have been easy.

WALDMAN: Going to Antarctica - it just required a lot of preparation. I prepared for months, and this was after it took me five years of applying to go to Antarctica and working towards becoming a wildlife filmmaker at the microbial scale. And so I was self-taught in microscopy. And then I ended up joining the San Francisco Microscopically Society, which I am now the president of (laughter) - super geeky.

ZOMORODI: Wow. So you had to become an expert microscopist. Am I saying that right?

WALDMAN: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: And so do you remember? Like, do you remember what it was like when you first got to put a sample under the microscope in Antarctica and peer into this tiny alien world for the first time?

WALDMAN: (Laughter) Yeah, I just about fainted, I feel like. The very first sample I got to look at was from divers who had gone under the sea ice. And I had an idea of, like, a few of the different critters that I was going to see. But when I put the first sample under the microscope, I saw these beautiful diatoms, which are, you know, microalgae with glass shells, which are just beautiful. They're geometric gems of the sea and of different areas of water around the earth. But I found diatoms that had triangular shapes, and they just looked like they had been manufactured by humans. They're so gorgeous. And I - yeah, I don't know. I - it's hard to put it into words just how excited I was.

ZOMORODI: OK, so talk us through it. Like, what was the plan for you and your trusty microscopes?

WALDMAN: So the plan in Antarctica was to take my microscopes around to different locations and really be able to find life that was under the ice. So I was looking for life underneath the sea ice. I was looking for life embedded inside glacier ice, life that was near frozen lakes. And I would go around, and I would take samples from different locations. And some of the areas where I sampled that were more hardcore to get to, I would join up with another team.

ZOMORODI: And one of those hardcore places was beneath the ice, like into the water.

WALDMAN: (Laughter) Yeah, it was...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING)

ZOMORODI: Absolutely freezing water, right?

WALDMAN: Yeah, this - absolutely freezing water. I believe the water is negative-2 Celsius. So because it's saltwater, it can go a little bit beyond the normal freezing point of water. And there are divers in Antarctica that regularly go down under 9-feet thick of sea ice and...

ZOMORODI: Whoa.

WALDMAN: ...Explore the ocean down there. It's really amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WALDMAN: I was watching these divers, going like, why would anyone want to do that?

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

WALDMAN: That is freezing cold. Like, there's nothing that can be that worth it. But thankfully, there's this metal tube that McMurdo Station puts into the ice. And you can crawl down this tube.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WALDMAN: And at the bottom of this tube, you're embedded between the sea ice and the sea floor. So you're kind of floating there, so to speak, with windows where you're able to see all of the life on the sea floor, and you can hear all of these amazing Weddell seals, which sound like synthesizers all around you. It's really magical, and it really changed my perspective on why anyone would ever want to be a diver in Antarctica.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WALDMAN: So I could help direct divers to take collections from the sea ice ceiling and from the sea floor. And then I would take the samples back to the main laboratory at McMurdo Station and filter them and look at them under the microscope as freshly as I could so that I could see them interacting in the way that they would interact in their home environment.

ZOMORODI: So tell us about the microbes that you found and the footage that you took of them. We're actually going to look at them and describe some of them here, and the first one is a tardigrade. Ariel, what is a tardigrade?

WALDMAN: (Laughter) So a tardigrade is also known as a water bear or sometimes even a moss piglet. And they are tiny microscopic animals. They are actually animals. They have eight legs. They're incredibly cute. They look like little gummy bears with claws, I always like to say. They've got two little eye spots. Tardigrade means slow walker, so they are not the quickest microbes that you'll see under the microscope, but they're just adorable. And they're famous for being hardcore, for being able to survive extreme cold or extreme dryness, radiation and lots of other things.

ZOMORODI: So it looks like to me, OK, yes, a gummy bear. You say gummy bear. I think it also looks like a manatee with eight arms...

WALDMAN: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: ...But then see-through and microscopic. And it's just kind of moving around with its little arms. What is it doing?

WALDMAN: Yeah, so the little claws on tardigrades are really good at going through moss. So the most common environment that you'll find these tardigrades in is moss. And those claws allow them to be really nimble, but when you put one on a glass slide, it has trouble. It's kind of like an ice skating rink for it. So what you're seeing is a tardigrade which is able to navigate through moss fairly easily, but once it tries walking over the glass, it slips and slides and has trouble getting traction.

ZOMORODI: Wow. So much going on for the little tardigrade. OK, so let's take a look at the next one. I'm just going to describe it. It's kind of oblong, translucent with what looks like these little green - I don't know - beach balls kind of moving around inside of it. Oh, and it's moving a bit. It's got a little shimmy. What is happening here, Ariel? Who is this?

WALDMAN: Yeah, so this is a ciliate. It's a type of protist, and protists - they're not animals, they're not plants, and they're not fungi. They are their own thing. And you saw it just here...

ZOMORODI: Oh.

WALDMAN: ...Poop out, like, a little piece of stuff from its stomach.

ZOMORODI: It pooped. What?

WALDMAN: (Laughter) This is what I love about ciliates. They are called ciliates because they have cilia on their outside, which just means little fringy bits that are like little hairs that they use to get around and feel for food and other things like that. But the thing I love about ciliates is that you can see their entire digestive system. Pretty much, it's just a circle of digestion that you're looking at (laughter). Yeah.

ZOMORODI: You know, earlier in the show, we spoke to Emily Levesque. She's an astronomer. And it strikes me that you both have been transported into places that it's kind of hard to believe they exist. Like, without seeing them, you may not believe them. Is that what happened to you with this project?

WALDMAN: I feel like it did. I feel that, you know, it's the same as a telescope. It really shows you another world, but I think microscopes even more so because this is the world that you already live in. So instead of showing you this faraway, distant planet and imagining what that is like, you already know what Earth is like. It's just that you don't know that you're walking by entire zoos of tiny animals every day.

You know, tardigrades - while they're famous for surviving these extreme environments, they live in moss everywhere across the planet. So every single sidewalk crack that you walk by that has a little piece of moss embedded inside it - there is most likely a lot of tardigrades in there. And this is what I love about microscopes, is really - it gives you much more insight into your experience as a human on earth, which is a pretty amazing planet when you study space.

ZOMORODI: And so has that outlook and this experience changed you in some way and where you're headed?

WALDMAN: For me, my own journey in microscopes, I think, is really growing. I'm wanting to do more field microscopy in different locations. So whether it be going into prairies or the rainforests of Madagascar, it's very clear that being able to go into the field and look at the microscopic critters that are around and being able to showcase that to the world is something that's really useful because there's just so much that, you know, we enjoy from BBC documentaries of wildlife, and we should have that same experience for the microscopic world around us. And that's really where I'm hoping to take everything.

ZOMORODI: That's Ariel Waldman. She's a wildlife filmmaker at the microbial scale. You can see all her microbes at lifeundertheice.org, and you can watch her talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.