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Steven Lane holds a giant sea spider specimen

Steven Lane, who will graduate with a PhD from the University of Montana this spring, holds a huge sea spider specimen that he collected from the floor of the ocean in Antarctica. Part of Lane's research on the sea spider centered on the tendency for some creatures to be larger at the poles than their counterparts in warmer water. 

Steven Lane remembers perching at the edge of the ice and staring at the beauty of marine life in the clear, cold Antarctic waters.

Below the edge of a white and gray landscape, the man from Ohio saw sea anemones, glass sponges and soft corals.

"Looking down, you can just see this incredible abundance and diversity of life, so it's almost like you're entering another world that is very different," Lane said. "If I can make a pun, it's a polar difference from the outside."

Once the University of Montana doctoral student took the plunge and shined his flashlight, he saw the vibrant oranges and reds and greens that pop in sea life. On the hunt for the bizarre and alien-like sea spider, he would swim until his fingers froze, maybe 30 or 40 minutes at a time.

This spring, Lane earned his PhD from UM, and he's published three out of four chapters of his dissertation. The subject of his research is the unique sea spider and a phenomenon called "polar gigantism," a tendency for some creatures to be larger at the poles than their counterparts in warmer water.

The project is unusual, but the opportunity students at UM have to do work beyond the classroom and campus labs is not uncommon. Professor Arthur Woods, who worked with Lane, said biology students have done work in the Rocky Mountain West and as far away as Borneo, Japan and South America.

"Even though we're a small university and small department, we have a pretty international reach for the kinds of projects students are doing," Woods said.

***

Lane grew up in a landlocked state and developed a natural fascination with the ocean. When he was ready to pursue a doctorate, he reached out to Woods about studying sea spiders. The plan was risky.

Woods said he had applied for a National Science Foundation grant that would fund the research, but when Lane contacted him, the project hadn't been approved. The professor said as much to the student: "You could come here, and I might not get the grant."

Lane, though, said the risk was worthwhile: "The short answer is because it was a chance to go down to Antarctica" if the grant was approved.

He had other reasons, too. He grew up in a flat landscape with corn and soybean fields, and moving to Montana meant he could live in the mountains. For his master's project, he had studied fruit flies, one of the most well-studied animals on the planet, and he'd done research on respiratory physiology. 

The potential project at UM would mean studying the respiratory system of a little-known — and weird — creature with a professor who knew the topic inside and out.

"Art is one of the leading experts that does that type of research, and so the opportunity to work with Art was a big pull, and he's been an incredibly awesome adviser," Lane said.

The grant came through.

In the last five years, UM has spent $37.4 million from scientific research grants awarded by the NSF, part of $345.8 million in total research dollars spent over the same period, according to the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.

The sea spider team would travel to Antarctica in the fall of 2015 and 2016. If Lane wanted the opportunity to participate in the first trip's dives, he had one year to get the certifications.

***

Lane had wanted to SCUBA dive since he was a child, but the Great Lakes didn't sound appealing to him. To be able to dive in Antarctica, he needed to be certified at least a year in advance of the October 2015 trip and then tally 50 dives, nearly one a week, including 15 in a dry suit.

By the middle of September 2014, he got certified. Nearly every other week after, he and his instructor from the Gull Boats & RV SCUBA shop went diving, heading to Flathead Lake, Seeley Lake, McGregor Lake near Kalispell, and Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

Before the first trip overseas, the team went to Friday Harbor in Puget Sound for roughly a month in the summer of 2015 and studied sea spiders in that area. Lane did some 20 dives in the sound.

"I was doing a lot of diving there to get more experience and meet the requirements of diving in Antarctica," he said.

The dive time with Woods, UM researcher Bret Tobalske, and collaborator Amy Moran from the University of Hawaii also helped the team gel in preparation for the first trip to Antarctica.

When they finally hit McMurdo Station, the largest scientific research hub on Antarctica, Woods said the team worked around the clock. Lane collected all of his data in two trips in the span of four total months of work.

"The only way you can do that is if you're super focused," Woods said.

***

All told, Lane gathered at least one representative of each species, 20 or 30 whole animals and 70 samples, including a lot of leg pieces since sea spider legs grow back.

The research showed "conclusively that sea spiders take up oxygen across pores in their cuticle," said Lane's abstract. It also demonstrated that the way the spiders breathe limits their body size.

That's because the cuticle must be porous enough to allow oxygen but strong enough to hold up the animal. The cuticle grows more porous as the animal gets bigger, but "it cannot increase indefinitely (because) a cuticle that is too porous may collapse due to external forces."

"My research provides an important first step in understanding the physiology of these animals that can help explain their role in the Antarctic ecosystem," Lane said in the abstract.

The most high-profile journal in which Lane published is the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The journal notes its main criteria for publication is a novel idea with significance for biologists. Because it receives more submissions than it can print, it gives preference to "those presenting significant advances of broad interest."

Although he earned a doctorate, Lane is skipping commencement for the chance to head to Disney World with family.

As he wraps up his research and teaching at UM, he's pursuing teaching jobs across the country because he loves describing science to students and the public. If he has the chance to dive with sea spiders under the ice again, he'll do it.

Lane is still fascinated by the creatures and still thrilled with the experience of SCUBA diving. He teaches SCUBA classes at the YMCA and remains incredulous at the chance to stay underwater for a spell, even in a swimming pool.

"It was an awesome experience," Lane said. " ... I love SCUBA diving even in the pool at the YMCA. As humans, we shouldn't be underwater, at least for very long."

***

Students coming out of UM's biology program are strong, Woods said. This year, seven of them received highly competitive NSF pre-doctoral fellowships that fund three years of graduate work.

"We had a bunch of undergrads accepted to really nice graduate programs all over the nation," he said.

The professor attributes the achievements in part to the experiences UM offers. Not only can doctoral students such as Lane get out of the classroom, so can undergraduates who want to head into the field to do scientific research.

"I think it's just a testament to the fact that the overall biology education is really good and that we provide a lot of opportunities for students to get into labs and actually be biologists," Woods said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.