Stickleback – The super fish

Darting through Cheney Lake in Anchorage, Alaska are thousands of small fish, about three inches in length, with three spiny projections that jut off the top of their bodies, pricking anything that dares touch them. The color of their scales varying in color depending on the season, sex, or population from which they descend. They gleam shiny silver, blue, or a dull brown, sometimes with a greenish hue. They’re named threespine stickleback, and they’ve become a powerhouse organism for study.  Found in nearly all Alaskan lakes and across most of the northern hemisphere, scientists have taken keen interest in these fish for the practical uses they hold for studying evolution and conducting research.

Threespine stickleback from Cheney Lake in Anchorage, Alaska during their reproductive stage of life. The fish with blue eyes is a reproductive male.

        At the University of Alaska Anchorage, Kat Milligan-Myhre, heads a laboratory of undergraduates, graduates, lab techs, and post docs who are all using threespine stickleback as a model organism for a variety of projects on host gut microbe interactions. The lab is able to study how the microbes within the gut of threespine stickleback, the host, affect a variety of things like development, physiology, behavior, and more. Milligan-Myhre developed a procedure that allows the lab to fertilize eggs of the fish and then make them free of all microbes. They can then add back in select microbes or none at all to study how the microbes are actually affecting the fish.

A 7-day-old transparent juvenile threespine stickleback. Milligan-Myhre has developed a protocol to rear threespine stickleback free of microbes until 14 days after the eggs they’ve hatched from have been fertilized.

        “Stickleback have a number of really cool qualities. One is that they are transparent so we can actually watch fluorescent microbes move around in the gut of a live stickleback,” said Milligan-Myhre, “We can make large amounts of genetically similar eggs from a single cross or a couple of crosses… with fish you can get 100 to up to 200, if you’re lucky, of genetically related fish. That allows us to have a lot of power so we can do some really good statistical analysis on these changes that we’re seeing when we treat these animals.”

Kelly Ireland and Kat Milligan-Myhre set traps for threespine stickleback in Cheney Lake in Anchorage, Alaska in May of 2017. The lab uses minnow traps that have a funnel and hole on either end of the trap that threespine stickleback then swim into and get trapped.

        They are studying a variety of populations from varying lakes across Alaska, but by far their most frequented lake of interest is Cheney Lake. The lake had threespine stickleback introduced to it in 2009 from a parental population found in Rabbit Slough, Alaska, by Frank Von Hippel, a former professor at UAA, who like Milligan-Myhre used them as a model organism. Von Hippel’s lab was interested primarily in the evolution of the fish, however.

Ryan Lucas, Emily Lescak, and Kelly Ireland of Kat Milligan-Myhre’s lab pull traps from Y Lake of the Talkeetna Lakes chain in Talkeetna, Alaska. The lab then does in field gut dissections to assess gut microbe composition within the threespine stickleback.

        “What really sets stickleback apart from zebrafish, which are the traditional go to fish model, is that we can take stickleback that have evolved in different environments and we can relate the environments in which they evolved to their physiological and genetic variation,” said Emily Lescak, former doctoral student of Von Hippel’s, currently working as a post-doctoral fellow in Milligan-Myhre’s lab, “Basically we can understand what selection pressures in the environment cause a fish to evolve in certain ways, so we can understand what sort of ecological pressures there are on fish populations.”

Threespine stickleback fish from Rabbit Slough, near Wasilla, Alaska. The Rabbit Slough population is anadromous meaning they’re born in freshwater, then travel to oceanic environments for most of their life, and then return to freshwater to mate.

 

       Incidentally there’s already evidence that the threespine stickleback Von Hippel introduced into Cheney Lake are already undergoing evolution from their anadromous (meaning the fish, like salmon, are born in freshwater, travel to the ocean, and then come back to the freshwater to mate) ancestral form, to freshwater forms. The threespine stickleback in Cheney Lake were introduced in 2009 after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game applied a Rotenone treatment in October, 2008, to the lake. Rotenone was used to eliminate northern pike that were introduced illegally. The Rotenone treatment wiped out all fish populations in the lake and allowed Fish and Game to restock Cheney Lake with rainbow trout, and Von Hippel to introduce threespine stickleback from a known population, Rabbit Slough. Milligan-Myhre’s lab has been collecting data on Cheney Lake and threespine stickleback from the lake monthly to assess the changes of the threespine stickleback population over time.

 

        “We can follow evolution in real time. That’s exciting,” said Milligan-Myhre.

        The lab is collaborating with a lab at Stony Brook University in New York to look at genetic differences as the population evolves. Milligan-Myhre’s lab hopes to also take a look at how as the population changes over time into their freshwater form the microbiota and threespine stickleback’s immune response to microbes also change.

Rachael Kramp an undergraduate student of Kat Milligan-Myhre’s lab, works with microbes from the guts of threespine stickleback from Cheney Lake in the anaerobic chamber of Milligan-Myhre’s lab at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

        The tools these fish offer are nearly limitless from using them as a model for biomedical research, as they have similar physiology to humans, to studying evolution, these fish also make great models for studying ecotoxicology, as well as, host microbe interactions, just to touch on a few of their benefits. The threespine stickleback came to be a model organism in the 1900s with the work of Nobel Prize laureates, Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch, because of the ease to which they could be manipulated in the lab, now in 2017 the threespine stickleback shows no signs of slowing down as being the model organism of many scientist’s dreams. In 2018, hundreds of researchers will even gather together for the 9th International Conference on Stickleback Behavior and Evolution in Kyoto, Japan. These prickly little fish may not seem like much to the majority of people, but to many scientists they are the crux of their entire careers.

 

Written by Kelly Ireland. Kelly Ireland is an undergraduate student doing research in Kat Milligan-Myhre’s lab.

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Solitude seeker: Molly Liston

women wanderers

Molly Liston grew up in Homer, Alaska, where the forest came down into her backyard, and Roseburg, Oregon, where the Pacific Crest Trail meandered only about two hours from her home. She spent hours playing and hiding out in the woods and fell in love with the outdoors.

“My parents just would say ‘Go outside and play!’”

Her parents also inoculated in her the skills to get outside by taking Molly and her siblings skiing as early as three-years-old. For Molly, the outdoors is not just a hobby. She pursued a physical education degree with an outdoor adventure emphasis at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.  In school, she began working with the current health, physical education and recreation director and associate professor, TJ Miller, running an outdoor program for student living on campus.

Molly now works at Pacific Northern Academy, an independent and non-sectarian private school in Anchorage, as the physical education teacher. It is Molly’s first steady job, but her desire for adventure cannot be tamed. In the summers she guides for Ascending Path or Chugach Adventures based out of Girdwood, Alaska. Molly also helps teach a few outdoor classes at UAA, including a beginning canoeing class that will be offered this summer. In her teaching Molly teaches her students that they can do anything.

“One of my major goals while teaching is to really empower students (both male and female) to try their best no matter where they begin physically or athletically… I encourage them to practice the things that they want to get better at and remind them that to be good at something it requires practice and repetition.”

Molly tries to be an inspiration to her students. She wants no one to ever feel as if they can’t do something for any reason.

“Another thing that I try to do is to simply be a positive role model. Most Physical Education teachers are the stereotypical athletic male and by being a strong athletic and female leader I hope to encourage those female students to break barriers in their own lives. It’s a very exciting and gratifying position to be in!”

Molly also works with college aged students at UAA. Molly’s experience landed her the job as an assistant professor for a 26-day expedition in the Brooks Range with UAA’s outdoor leadership program in 2014. The trip included hiking over 100 miles into the Brooks Range and rafting back out. There were nine students in the class, two were female.

Molly was the only female instructor so was left in a tent by herself, whereas everyone else had a tent mate, including the two other instructors who tented together.

“Yes, I felt very free because you are, you are really smelly and you just want your alone time so that was really nice, but I had to tear down my tent and set it up by myself every single day and cook all my own food. They all got to switch back and forth, so that was a little bit challenging.”

Molly is no stranger to working alone though. In 2012 she hiked the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. The journey started out as a trip between her brother Matt and her, but a week into the trip Matt couldn’t go any further due to injury. Molly, a capable outdoorswoman who is self reliant, wouldn’t let the idea of going alone stop her. She hiked about a month and over 500 miles by herself.

Molly and Matt had planned for such an occurrence knowing that he always gets hurt. He was nervous, but excited for Molly to continue. The two knew that she could make phone calls on her cell periodically when she had service and were confident in Molly’s abilities in the woods.

“We knew that it was going to be interesting, I mean, it’s tough, these things are still nerve wracking, but I’m not the first person to do that. There’s other women who hiked the whole thing by themselves.”

Despite the obvious dangers of being in the woods by yourself and of being a woman alone in the woods Molly found herself struggling with something much different than fears related to those dangers. Molly’s experience on the Pacific Crest Trail was a time of solitude and self reflection.

“You know it was really tough because there’s no route finding. When you have to route find you’re always thinking, you’re always like ‘okay I’m here,’ you’re looking at where you are on the map, but when you’re on the Pacific Crest Trail and you literally don’t have anything to think about other than yourself. It was very challenging – physically and mentally. I was really proud of myself. There was a lot of times I wanted to stop because of blisters or I don’t know maybe even being a little bit bored with myself because I’m such a social person. It was definitely very mentally challenging.”

While Molly battled with the isolation of the trail she finds the alone time to be one of the best parts of being outdoors.

“I just love how quiet it is when I’m by myself and just the freedom to be quiet by yourself, but then in the other aspect I love sharing the experiences with people.”

Matt and Molly starting their journey on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Matt and Molly starting their journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly's brother Matt takes a quick break on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly’s brother Matt takes a quick break on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
One of the last camps that Molly and Matt set up together in the first portion of Molly's journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. This camp was made on their seventh night of the trip near Red Lake Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
This camp was made on Molly and Matt’s seventh night of the trip near Red Lake Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly Liston sits above Crater Lake on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly Liston sits above Crater Lake on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly and Scout, Molly wears Chacos to help alleviate blisters while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly and Scout, Molly wears Chacos to help alleviate blisters while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly and Scout overlook the Sky Lakes Wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly and Scout overlook the Sky Lakes Wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly and Matt celebrate their completion of Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Molly and Matt celebrate Molly’s completion of the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Molly Liston.
Liston looks out towards Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Liston looks out towards Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Fireweed above Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Fireweed above Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly climbs through the grasses on the Spencer Bench Hike. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly climbs through the grasses on the Spencer Bench Trail. The trail takes hikers to the Spencer Bench Cabin on a 3 mile trail that climbs 1,800 feet.   Photo by Kevan Dee.
Wandering through the woods of Spencer Bench Trail. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Wandering through the woods of Spencer Bench Trail. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly and Tallie above Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly and Tallie above Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly and Tallie explore Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly and Tallie explore Spencer Glacier. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly and Tallie kayaking on Spencer Lake. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly and Tallie kayaking on Spencer Lake. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly fishing on the BLANK river. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly fishing on the BLANK river. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly backpacking on the South Fork Trail in Eagle River, Alaska. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly backpacking on the South Fork Trail in Eagle River, Alaska. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly above Winner Creek Gorge in Girdwood, Alaska in the handtram. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly in the handtram on the Grewink Glacier Trail across the bay from Homer, Alaska. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly with her fish on BLANK RIVER. Photo by Kevan Dee.
Molly with her fish on the Talkeetna River near Decision Creek. Photo by Kevan Dee.

Alaska outdoor culture: Fostering women in the outdoors

women wanderers

Alaska boasted as the largest state in the union, with the largest mountain in North America and the greatest abundance of wildlife is truly a wild place. The inherent nature of Alaska inspires people to get outside. One look at Denali and it’s plain to see that getting outside is one of the best parts about visiting or living in Alaska. Alaska is an incredibly unique place that invites those who live here to go play outside.

With so much to offer in ways of outdoor activities there is a definite outdoor culture in the state of Alaska. Women who are often underrepresented in outdoor spheres are active members of the outdoor community in Alaska. No one is pushed away from being an adventurer in Alaska, where adventure still runs rampant and solitude can actually be found.

Monika Fleming, a University of Alaska Anchorage student originally from Chewelah, Washington came to Alaska after a slew of adventures that took her all the way to Nepal. Fleming found her home in the last frontier where there is a strong community of outdoorsy people.

“Pretty much every Alaskan I’ve met has done some stuff, like every single one of them, and some crazy stuff too. Even if they don’t do it all the time, the stuff they have done has been really kind of advanced,” said Fleming of Alaska’s outdoor culture. “I’m just like ‘Oh!’ …In the classes I’ve taken there’s this one girl Courtney, she’s the head of the sororities or something like that. She’s really hardy and outdoorsy, but she just looks like you know, just Alaskans always surprise you.”

However, Alaskans who’ve been here their whole lives don’t feel like they are doing anything out of the ordinary. Lifetime Alaskan Kendyl Murakami, who currently studies biology at UAA, is inspired by how there’s so much to do. Despite the cold she feels like it’s impossible to stay indoors living in Alaska.

“I feel like most of us when we grow up in Alaska we grow up with all this expertise surviving outside so I don’t feel like we [women] have any crazy limitations. We all know how to make a fire. We could chop down some wood or cut it in half or whatever, so there’s not a lot of restraints,” Murakami said of Alaskan women.

Not only is Alaska accepting of women getting outside it actually provides a community for it.

“If women, or men, doesn’t matter, if they really want to do something in the outdoors I think Alaska has a phenomenal community to foster that,” said Molly Liston a P.E. teacher at Pacific Northern Academy, a private non-sectarian school in Anchorage.

Pacific Northern Academy is just another example of Alaskan’s self reliant and adventurous way of life. The school’s mission is to “educate students to be exceptional learners and independent thinkers of vision, courage, and integrity.” Students at PNA are encouraged to play and be creative in their learning.

This self reliant attitude about education doesn’t end in the elementary and middle school of Pacific Northern Academy though. At UAA, an outdoor leadership program is offered to students via the health, physical education and recreation program. T.J. Miller the director of the program was Liston’s mentor when she went to college. Miller has lived in both Alaska and Colorado, working as a guide or outdoor instructor for the entirety of his life.

“You know I think up here, gosh, I see more mountain guides on Denali that are women than I saw in Colorado. I guess I would have to say it seems that Alaska has incorporated and embraced women a little more than other areas and I’m kind of comparing Alaska to Colorado, those are my two main states. And again maybe it’s social media, but I have seen more women in the industry doing well and excelling up here than other places.”

Regardless of what it is that makes Alaska such an outdoorsy place, one thing is for sure, there is no end to the possibilities of what one can explore. Undoubtedly there are thousands maybe even millions of untouched acres in the state just waiting to be explored and maybe a woman will be the next to conquer some astounding untouched outdoor feat in Alaska.

 

Cliff hanger: Kendyl Murakami

women wanderers

Starting at a young age Kendyl Murakami has been immersed in the outdoors. Kendyl has ten siblings and her mother fostered in her children a love of the outdoors taking them camping as a cheap alternative to other activities.

“Ten siblings is a lot to do like cell phones and all that stuff… We did everything outside.”

Kendyl to this day spends a lot of her free time outside. She enjoys camping, going to lakes, snowshoeing, skiing, hiking, kayaking and rock climbing.

“There’s so much to do in Alaska!”

Kendyl in recent years has been an avid rock climber and climbing is now her sport of choice. Kendyl first become interested in rock climbing after her older sister Julia took a rock climbing course at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Julia took Kendyl out and ever since they have shared a passion for the sport and partner climb with one another frequently.

“We went rock climbing in Spain, free climbing without ropes. That’s like what roped me down to rock climbing because that was so crazy! We went to this place in Spain that’s like the biggest free climb that you can do because it overhangs water. So it was kind of crazy like just falling because you get so high and you fall that far, but it wasn’t life or death scary, but you felt like you were dying.”

Kendyl travels frequently with her sister Julia. Traveling and rock climbing are Kendyl’s biggest motivators to work. Kendyl spent a year working for Village Inn and Suite 100 just to save money up for her trip to Europe which included her visit to Spain where she rock climbed with her sister Julia. After Europe Kendyl returned to work at Village Inn to save money for a trip to Hawai’i in February. That was then followed by a stint at ORSO’s to save for a visit to Myrtle Beach this last March. Kendyl now works as CNA. Julia always told Kendyl that travel is important and the two go as often as they can afford.

Kendyl and Julia in addition to their trip to Spain have done trips to Washington to chase routes.

“We’ve done other bouldering stuff in the Washington area where you bring your own pads, you hike in. Then you climb up however far you want or however far you’re comfortable falling. You either land on your pads. You only go ten or so feet up, fifteen feet if you’re really comfortable.”

There was also some more classic rock climbing the two did on the trip.

“When we were in Washington, there’s a thing they call tread climbing. It was already carabineered, clipped, routed so we just did that, but it was a double par. So that means you anchor in like 25 feet up so you climb like 10 or 15 feet and then you anchor into the wall and then you continue climbing. It’s like two pitch. It’s really scary because when you’re trying to anchor in you’re not actually tied to anything. That was probably the most coolest part we rock climbed.”

The two also spent time backpacking through California. They used the Rideshare service to get around and met numerous strangers along the way that quickly became friends. While in Sacramento they met two guys named Damien and Abel using Rideshare and ended up hiking Donner Summit to the Peter Grubb Hut which sits just of the Pacific Crest Trail near Sacramento with them.

Despite her vagabond lifestyle and the numerous places Kendyl has traveled there’s many places she’s yet to visit. And much, much more routes she would still like to climb.

“Yosemite is the king of all rock climbing. It’s crazy. They have so many pitches and it’s hundreds of feet up in the air. I’ll definitely go there one time.”

While Yosemite is her dream climbing destination, Kendyl is currently working as a CNA to save up for next trip. It won’t be long, however, before Kendyl travels to the mecca of rock climbing to finally conquer the great walls where women rock climbing legends before her laid the foundation for women in the sport of rock climbing. Kendyl may not be setting new paths, but she is conquering all the paths she has taken.

 

Kendyl Murakami is an avid hiker, rock climber and traveler. She's a 20-year-old biology major at University of Alaska Anchorage.
Kendyl Murakami is an avid hiker, rock climber and traveler. She’s a 20-year-old biology major at University of Alaska Anchorage.
Kendyl, Julia, BLANK and BLANK on Donner's Pass to the Peter Grubb Hut on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo courtesy of Kendyl Murakami.
Kendyl, Julia, Abel and Damien on Donner Summit heading to the Peter Grubb Hut just off the Pacific Crest Trail near Sacramento. Kendyl and Julia met Abel and Damien via Rideshare while on a backpacking trip in California. Photo courtesy of Kendyl Murakami.
Kendyl in Spain.
Kendyl in Pathos, a Greek island, atop one of the tallest peaks of the island. Photo courtesy of Kendyl Murakami.
Kendyl and BLANK in BLANK doing some hiking and climbing.
Kendyl and new acquaintance Pentos free climbing the Angel Rock Mountain outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Kendyl Murakami.
Kendyl and Julia getting ready for rock climbing. Photo courtesy of Kendyl Murakami.
Kendyl and Julia getting ready for a ropes course in North Carolina at the Adventure Center of Asheville. Photo courtesy of Kendyl Murakami.
Kendyl and her sister below the Hollywood sign in California. Photo courtesy of Kendyl Murakami.
Kendyl and Julia in Hollywood on their backpacking trip from Seattle to San Diego. Photo courtesy of Kendyl Murakami.