Antarctica 101: Summer School for Scientists


Young scientists, at the graduate and postdoctoral level, have had the opportunity in the last 5 years to participate in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Antarctic Biology Course at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. In 2000 I was fortunate to be one of the participants, and in 2001 I was even more fortunate to be asked back to help teach the course.

These were easily two of the most incredible and rewarding experiences of my graduate career, and they helped validate my preconceived notions of polar science and teaching. Now, as I forge ahead in my career, two of my goals are definitely to return to Antarctica as a scientist and to focus on teaching. I owe this in part to my experiences on the ice.

The Antarctic Biology Course is an intense, 4-week introduction to the unique biology of high-latitude environments as well as an introduction to the logistical aspects of conducting research in Antarctica. The lead organizer of the course is University of Southern California professor, longtime Antarctic scientist, and Antarctic exploration history buff Donal Manahan. With the NSF office of polar programs, Manahan endeavored to design a course that would bring the classroom to Antarctica, simultaneously educating young scientists about Antarctic biology and inspiring them to return as funded scientists. The ultimate result of "graduating" the participants would be a broadening and diversification of Antarctic research--especially at McMurdo Station, the logistical center of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) and home of the incredibly well-outfitted and well-staffed Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center.

In my opinion, the course was and will continue to be an incredible success. I would highly recommend it to any young scientist who is interested in doing research in this type of environment. Although about two-thirds of the participants were from the United States, the course is open to scientists around the world. All students attend the course free of charge, and competition for spots is fierce.

Once you're accepted into the program, it becomes apparent immediately that just getting to Antarctica is something of a logistical nightmare. Before departure, you must pass thorough medical and dental examinations--a preventive measure to avoid any foreseeable medical emergencies while you're on the ice. Then, it's a full day's flight (about 20 hours from New York City) to the Antarctic Center in Christchurch, New Zealand, where you attend safety and regulations briefings and get outfitted with NSF standard-issue cold-weather gear, including the trademark red parka and "bunny boots." Now, provided the weather is cooperating, you're ready to depart for the ice.

The flight from New Zealand to Antarctica is difficult for even the most seasoned traveler. You'll spend 8 hours seated in cargo netting along the fuselage of an LC-130 turboprop cargo plane packed with tons of equipment (from frozen food to compressed helium), struggling to hear yourself think (forget about hearing the person next to you talk). But the payoff makes it all worthwhile. The view upon deboarding the plane will simply blow your mind. Willy Field, the Antarctic airport (so to speak)--complete with flight control, emergency support and welcome bus--has the most incredible backdrop of any airport I've seen: a historically active, snow-covered, steam- and sulfur-spewing volcano. Mount Erebus is the world's southernmost active volcano; it stands 3794 meters. It was only one of many incredible physical and environmental features I witnessed during my stays in Antarctica.

But let's not forget that we are here to do science. The Antarctic Biology Course concentrates on the diverse marine ecosystem that surrounds McMurdo Station and the entire continent of Antarctica. Specifically, the course is divided into three themes: adaptation to constant cold temperature, ultraviolet light photobiology, and biological diversity. Three groups of students rotate through these themes for 4 days, participating in field exercises, laboratory experiments, and instruction from the thematic group professor. In addition, there are morning and evening lectures on various aspects of Antarctica: everything from the history of Antarctic exploration to Antarctic geography to lessons on metabolism.

Sign Me Up

If you're interested in taking the Antarctic Biology Course, you're going to have to be patient. The program took a year off this year, and it has not yet been determined when it will continue. The NSF Web site did a good job of announcing the program before. As well, it will probably be announced in many journals. I guess the answer is "stay tuned," and hopefully this article will inspire both future applicants and the leaders of the course. I certainly will attempt to get involved again.

The final week of the course is dedicated to student projects. Students, individually or in small groups, are encouraged to design and execute a small research project while on the ice. This proved incredibly challenging--doing science in Antarctica is hard! There are so many uncontrollable environmental and logistical variables in addition to the biological variables you are attempting to measure. Laboratory science has its usual pitfalls, and now add these: low temperature and high wind, reagents that never made it to Antarctica, unpredictable weather conditions that delay or cut short trips to your test site because it's dangerous to fly a helicopter in a snowstorm, Weddell seals that won't let you fish in your fishing hole, the unavoidable distraction presented by a troop of curious penguins, and ... well, you get the picture. The biology course demonstrates these difficulties firsthand. By the end of the course, the participants not only appreciate the challenges of working in this environment but also are now equipped to design and communicate a research proposal to a funding agency such as NSF.

Certainly, the working environment around McMurdo Station is intense: It is dangerous, highly variable, and so unusual that everyone working wants to maximize the hours actually "doing science." But all work and no play make Joe a dull scientist, and there seems to be a shortage of dull scientists around McMurdo Station. Some of the social events I attended rivaled even the best college parties, complete with rock and roll bands and even BBQ. There were also organized basketball and indoor soccer games, as well as the very popular Scott's Hut race (a 4-mile race through the "streets of McMurdo") and the not-so-popular McMurdo half and full marathons.

The days in Antarctica were long and intense but incredibly rewarding. Highlights included field trips to the ice edge and Bratina Island, an upside-down piece of seafloor now frozen in the ice sheet, where we collected samples from hypersaline ponds filled with all domains of life: archaea, bacteria, and eukaryota. Also, the trips to the early "huts" used by the great explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton were incredible. These huts are the unintentional museums of exploration left behind as the explorers attempted to escape the harsh environs. They remain intact and--thanks to the cold, dry Antarctic climate--remarkably well preserved, down to the chocolate bars, seal blubber, and dog biscuits carried by these early explorers.

For a biologist and an oceanographer, life in almost frozen seawater is pretty amazing. Whether you study protein folding or fluid dynamics in the cell or photosynthesis or invertebrate biology, Antarctica is an incredible place to work and to learn. It requires some major sacrifices and precautions, but it is rewarding beyond imagination. Unfortunately, it is also hard to get there (i.e., to get funded), especially as a young scientist. The Antarctic Biology Course is a tremendous introduction to Antarctic scholarship as well as the logistics of being an Antarctic scientist. It has inspired me twofold: to get back and to bring more students with me.

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