Antarctic researchers Chuck and Maggie Amsler give back to place that drew them to the water

Chuck and Maggie Amsler on Amsler Island

Chuck Amsler, T’80, met Maggie O’Leary while they were both undergraduates spending the summer of 1978 at the Duke Marine Lab. She introduced herself when she saw him carrying scuba gear, and they soon arranged to go diving together. When Maggie badly cut her leg on an oyster shell during the dive, they spent the rest of their date in the emergency room.  

“We were there for a long, long time, with nothing to do but talk to each other,” Chuck said. “We made a connection.”

Forty-five years later, Chuck and Maggie Amsler spend their time in chillier waters. Collectively the couple has made 56 trips to Antarctica. Most of those trips, including 14 together, have been as researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to study chemical ecology and the impacts of climate change, including ocean acidification, on marine organisms.

Passing along a love for the ocean

The Amslers knew they wanted to go into marine science from a very early age, tracing their fascination with the ocean to childhood vacations on the coast.

Maggie’s most vivid memory was collecting shells on Sanibel Island in Florida as a preschooler. “I was so enraptured by the colors and architecture of the shell, and just couldn’t imagine how an organism could create something so marvelous,” she said.

This year, Chuck and Maggie decided to make a planned gift to the Marine Lab, in the hopes that it will provide scholarships to aspiring marine scientists who love the ocean and its rich ecosystem as much as they do.

“We wouldn’t be ‘us’ without the Marine Lab,” Chuck said. “It’s a very special place in both of our hearts for a lot of reasons, and we want to make it easier for students in the future to get that kind of life-changing experience.”

A second home in Antarctica

Their lives may have changed even more than expected. It was Maggie who first traveled to Antarctica to study krill with her undergraduate mentor at DePaul University, where she had just graduated, while Chuck was finishing his senior year at Duke. Thereafter Maggie continued Antarctic work while they were both pursuing their master’s degrees at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. On her fourth trip, after they had both moved to the University of California Santa Barbara, Chuck decided to join her. 

“I wanted to see why she kept leaving me for three or four months a year,” Chuck said with a laugh. But he also recognized the potential in Antarctica for meaningful research in his field. As a professor and marine biologist who studies how algae adapt to their environments, he is able to observe how organisms leverage their natural chemical defenses for survival.

“As the world changes, some organisms will win and some will lose,” Chuck said. “We wanted to look at the traits of the winners and losers—why certain ones did better than others.”

Antarctica is one of the best places to study these winners and losers, he said, since warming and ocean acidification are having the most devastating effects there. Cold water absorbs carbon dioxide more quickly, making the poles especially vulnerable. Predators can find their way into waters that were previously too cold for them, wreaking havoc on shelled organisms made weaker by acidification.

Chuck’s research, funded by the National Science Foundation, is also aiding in the search for new medications. Some of the compounds produced by these marine organisms were shown to be effective in treating human ailments, from melanoma to MRSA.

In total, Chuck and Maggie have made more than 1,600 Antarctic research scuba dives studying the ecology of marine macroalgae and invertebrates. Maggie went even deeper in 2017, when she was invited by Japanese broadcasting corporation NHK on an undersea journey in a submersible. There, at a depth of 1,000 meters, she was able to observe the behavior of krill and other deep-sea creatures in their natural habitat.   

“If I ever go to outer space, that might top it,” Maggie said. “But right now, the highest point in my life is also the lowest.”

For their contributions to marine science, Chuck and Maggie had an island off the western edge of Antarctica named “Amsler Island” in their honor. However, Chuck notes with some irony, it would not even be an island if the glacier that covered it had not receded due to global warming.

Despite the drastic changes they are seeing in Antarctica, Maggie is optimistic about the future. “Think back to the ozone layer,” she said. “Countries came together and made a concerted effort, and that’s what this is going to take.”