Lassen Volcanic National Park and the Microbial Observatory

There’s a place that some people never find. It’s a really sweet spot and for a lot of us, it’s tricky to get there. When you find it though, it is magic. I am talking about finding work you are passionate about. This is the type of work that doesn’t feel like work at all. This is the type of work that makes you want to learn more, do more, find more, see more, be more.

Luckily, I found that place when I fell in love with the labs I was doing at PCC and then went on to PCC’s Bioscience Technology Program.  That place led me to the place I want to talk about for this blog, Lassen Volcanic National Park in California. Lassen is the home of the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project, The Boiling Springs Lake Microbial Observatory.  The project is a collaborative effort between Portland State, Humboldt State, Chico State and California State Universities, focusing on the microbial ecology of BSL.

Annually (or should I say bravely?), Dr. Stedman and his family lead a group of graduate, undergraduate and even high school  research students from his lab up to the area for a weekend of camping, learning field research techniques, collecting samples, making observations, and (thanks to the charming little Sophia) Bananagrams.  This year, Dr. Stedman’s brother, Ian and Ian's wife, Kristen also came along for the adventure making our group even merrier and a little bit funnier! (See Ian’s short bio written for Dr. Stedman here.)

We left on Friday morning and got to the campsite with plenty of time to get unpacked and set up tents. The ride was great with interesting conversation. We covered views about the Trayvon Martin incident to UFOs and ancient astronaut theory. Somewhere between those though I learned a few things about dolphins I really didn’t need to know. 


Bright and early Saturday we hiked up to the Boiling Springs Lake site. Dr. Stedman handed out fashionably fetching orange vests and laid down a serious safety lecture about where to walk and where not to walk after we were off trail. (Note: You need a permit with the park to do this and going off trail without someone who knows the area is not a bright idea. Don't try this at home.)


Next we began collecting samples. Everyone got a turn wrestling with the collection apparatus. This let me tell you, looked a lot easier to manipulate than it actually was in execution. Without killing the collection bucket by accidentally spilling all over the outside it’s a two person job.  The bend on the pole should have been my first clue.


We hiked the circumference of the lake, testing the temperature of various pools and admiring the views. It’s impossible not to. Beautiful is an understatement. This place is majestic. Having traveled somewhat around the continent, I have seen some beautiful (alright) even amazing places. Maybe it was the microbial connection (being so interested in how these tiny creatures coexist combined with what they can do) but this was absolutely, hands down, the most amazing place I’ve ever been. We took a few group photos and then someone yelled “Blue Steel.” Or maybe it was Magnum. Maybe I had an auditory hallucination at that point too.  Then the pictures just became hilarious. That's Mt. Lassen in the background.


From Boiling Springs Lake we collected water and sediment samples and split them into media to culture microbes from the genuses Sulfulobus, Thermoplasma and Pyrobaculum.  The water collected appears to be about 10 liters or so and it had to be hauled down the mountain by suspension between two hikers using the sampling poles. Luckily by this time, I was still doing quite well stamina and strength wise, so there was no need to ditch the sample and carry me back.

I was in awe of Boiling Springs Lake all the way back to camp. This hostile, volcanic steam vented lake hosts a variety of microbes that have endless possibilities and potential that we are still learning about. It’s one thing to know what you’re handling in the lab but this is entirely different. Let me put it this way, seeing Boiling Springs Lake in person for a microbiologist studying these microbes, is somewhat like traveling to Jerusalem if you’re devoutly religious.


Next we found a swimming hole which saved our lives because it was 95,000 degrees out. One of the undergraduate researchers took the opportunity to show us a talent like none I have ever seen before. She demonstrated the Swan Flop. It was a thing of pure beauty. So much so, that I had to turn it into a slow motion movie and add music. You can see that here.  We had a great time and a lot of laughs. One amongst us even had a swimming lesson. By day two at the swimming hole I would even call what she did actual swimming.


On Sunday, we hiked to Devil’s Kitchen. After passing a sign which pointed straight to Devil’s Kitchen or left to Dream Lake I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.  Miraculously I made it up the mountain, but after trudging around in what was also a spiritually gorgeous place for a few hours I seriously thought they might have to chopper me out of there. I nearly fell over when I discovered there was a horse rental option. Although, I doubt I would have been able to even balance on a horse at that point. This was not one of those trips someone recovering from a serious head injury, fractured skull and concussion should undertake only 1 month after sustaining such an injury. There was no way I was going to miss it and no one could have stood a chance at stopping me. How many times am I going to get an opportunity to have such an adventure again? Luckily, they didn’t have to chopper me out. I was able to make it back down the mountain with some amazing pictures and with a mighty fine blister on my hand from dragging a makeshift walking stick around the mountain with me all weekend. I was quite proud of that blister.  I was also in my tent half-conscious by roughly 4 p.m.  I awoke at some point to sleep eat a burrito that one of my lab mates was kind enough to prepare for me and then to pass my plate and fork back out of my tent. THAT’S how the Humboldt State Crew ended up with my fork! (If you’re reading this Mark Gordon and Patty, please send pictures of my adventuresome fork with the little flowers on the end to! It is my hope that it will visit the tribe of my people the Wiyot at Table Bluff Res!)<




We made it back fine. Apparently I had my finger on the shutter the whole time I was hiking around there because there were roughly 600 images I needed to sift through. Since we’ve been back I’ve been working on the Virus DNA extraction from sample collected at Boiling Springs Lake. I will have more info about this next week!

Also last week, Dr. Stedman and PhD Candidate, Geoffrey Diemer received the BioMedCentral Research Award for Best Paper 2012

The ceremony began with an introduction from Dr. Rosenenstiel  (Head of the Center for Life in Extreme Environments) reading from Moby Dick underneath the whale skeleton which hangs from the second floor lobby area of the Science and Teaching Research Center building on campus. He related Moby Dick’s characters, Ahab and Ishmael, to the different types of researchers found in the sciences. Bob Schatz from BioMedCentral gave a heartwarming speech including his ties to the PSU community which also thanked Dr. Stedman and Geoff Diemer for chosing to publish at their grant money expense so that the work would be open access. It was humbling to hear Dr. Stedman give the majority of the credit to Geoff. It was inspiring to hear Geoff talk about stepping back to look at the big picture. His work was the outcome of seeing something that didn’t look right, and following his hunch with it. The paper they were awarded for is A novel virus genome discovered in an extreme environment suggests recombination between unrelated groups of RNA and DNA viruses by Geoffrey S Diemer and Kenneth M Stedman. You can download a pdf version of the paper from Biology Direct by clicking the title of the paper above. The Oregonian wrote about it here

Finally, as a side note, BioMedCentral also presented the awardees with two unique additional awards. They are small green turtles called Gullivers. So far the lab has had a great time working with Gulliver and adventuring with the Gulliver that Dr. Stedman lent us. You will be able to spot Gulliver in future photos. 

Additional Photos from the Trip: 

< From Left to Right: 

Kaltuma Janay, Dr. Kenneth Stedman, Eric Iverson, David Goodman, Valerie Huang, Nk Egbukichi

(I had the best time with these people!)
< Mrs. Stedman, wrangling the Stedman cutie petuties!
< Panic grass! It can survive in the higher ground temperatures becuase it is infected by a fungi that is infected by a virus!
< Falls above our swimming hole.
< Girls pic!
< Bananagrams is serious!
<Very serious!
< Devil's Kitchen steam pot (in blue)
< This pot was especially active!
< Crazy!
< What a cutie!!!! I think at this point I was sincerely considering making this cool nook my new home. 
< The horse option. Really. 
< Who sees this sign and continues straight ahead? (In related news, I saw a picture of "Dream Lake" and it wasn't all that dreamy.)

< This group! (Seriously though, the grad student stands out a bit, no?)

























































































































































What an amazing trip! I was exhausted and Sunday evening probably nearing an early grave but I had the best time!



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Portland Community College


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