Research Recap for Oct. 29: Ecological work in the Gulf of Alaska, the geology of the North Olympic Fault zone, and more

Western’s faculty and students are engaged in exciting research and scholarship across a variety of fields. Each week, Western Today will share short summaries of the latest developments in scholarly work at the University. Interested in reading in-depth stories about science and research at Western? Go to Gaia, the university's online journal of research, discovery and scholarship, and subscribe (it's free) to that site by clicking the "Follow" button. Want more research news? Follow @WWUResearch on Twitter.

Suzanne Strom

The National Science Foundation has awarded Western $204,274 to cover the fifth year of its portion of a $5.6 million grant for long-term ecological research in the Northern Gulf of Alaska, Resilience in the Environmental Mosaic of the Northern Gulf of Alaska Shelf Ecosystem, which will run until Sept. 30, 2022. The grant was awarded in 2017, establishing the research site to allow researchers to make observations across a larger geographic region and give scientists an opportunity to undertake studies aboard the NSF research vessel Sikuliaq, operated by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Researchers at the site study the gulf's waters, which support abundant and economically important varieties of fish, crabs, seabirds and marine mammals, with a focus on understanding how changes to the global and regional environment impact the gulf.

Shannon Point Marine Center Senior Marine Scientist Suzanne Strom is one of five principal investigators for the grant, working alongside researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of California at Santa Cruz.

Jenna Chaffeur

Jenna Chaffeur is a second-year graduate student of Geology. She specializes in active faulting in the North Olympics using digital mapping, field mapping, and sediment sample dating in an effort to further characterize the extent of the North Olympic Fault Zone (NOFZ). Chaffeur is a recipient of the WWU Graduate Research Award for her thesis, “Defining the westward boundary of active faulting on the North Olympic fault zone, WA.” 

The NOFZ is a heavily studied fault zone about 50 miles northwest of Seattle. Recent research suggests that the NOFZ extends another 20 miles to the west than previously thought. Chaffeur’s graduate research co-advisors are Associate Professor of Geology Colin Amos and Professor of Geology Liz Schermer, and under their direction, Chaffeur wants to test the hypothesis that the fault zone behaves as a single fault system capable of hosting large, potentially destructive earthquakes.  

Chaffeur gets to work with some pretty interesting technology, like Optically Stimulated Luminescence, which tells her when a sediment sample stopped being exposed to sunlight. This analysis allows her to date sediment that has been disturbed, or offset, by an old earthquake. Knowing these ages allows researchers to create a bracket of time for when the last earthquake could have occurred. Over the summer, Chaffeur spent five weeks in the field with her collaborator and fellow WWU graduate student, Chantel Jensen, collecting samples and mapping the area between the Hoko River and Joyce on the Olympic Peninsula. 

Chaffeur went to North Arizona University as an undergraduate and was drawn to grad school at WWU in part because of the size of the program and its location in the Pacific Northwest. Her experience with her peers at Western has been collaborative and supportive. Chaffeur also says that she’s been awarded multiple grants because of the mentorship and support from her graduate research advisors,  Amos and Schermer. 

Karrin Leazer

Karrin Leazer is a second-year graduate student of Environmental Sciences who specializes in toxicology and human impact on the environment. More specifically, she studies the toxicity of microplastics in marine environments. She’s a recipient of the WWU Graduate Research Award for her project titled, “Microplastic leachate toxicity to mysid shrimp: analysis of molecular effects.” 

Scientists know that toxic tire particles from the road wash into the water systems. In 2020, a research group at the University of Washington discovered that a chemical associated with tires is lethal to coho salmon. But we don’t know what chemicals associated with tire particles actually do to the RNA and gene expression of organisms that are exposed to them. Leazer wants to fill a gap in the research by working specifically with tire particle leachate, which is a mixture of chemicals that come off weathered tire particles, to better assess human impact to the environment.   

Leazer’s graduate research advisor is Professor of Environmental Sciences Ruth Sofield. Over the summer, Sofield connected Leazer with Markus Hecker, a professor and molecular toxicologist at the University of Saskatchewan. Working with weathered tire particle leachates, Leazer did the physiology part of her project at WWU, mixing the leachates and exposing, manipulating, and monitoring the mysid shrimp. Then she spent a month in Saskatoon this summer with Hecker learning the molecular data side of her project. Leazer first exposes the shrimp to sublethal concentrations of the leachate, sends her samples off to have the RNA extracted at the University of Saskatchewan, sends the RNA to another lab (Genome Quebec) for sequencing, and then analyzes the data.   

Before becoming a grad student at WWU, Leazer worked in a lab at a prominent research institution for two years as a lab technician and eventually, a lab manager. While she enjoyed her time there, she says there’s a big difference in research culture here at Western. Leazer says Western Research is more collaborative than competitive. And she appreciates the small-groups culture at WWU, where she feels that faculty prioritize investment in and mentorship of grad students. 

Jenna Chaffeur smiles on a mountain trail with blue skies in the background.
Karrin Leazer smiles in a portrait with fairy lights in the background.