Graduate Research in Antarctica


I had always imagined myself as a physician in a small southern city with plenty of sand and sun all around me. Now, I imagine myself as a college professor in a southern city with plenty of sand and sun around me. The change is due to the wonderful experiences I have had in biological research as both an undergraduate and as a graduate student. My most recent adventure, however, took me just a little farther south than I ever would have imagined going.

Having just returned from 2 months in Antarctica, I have lots to talk about and not enough people to talk to. It was a great experience and one that started in a humble enough way by simply going to lunch with some professors and hearing about graduate studies in biology.

Because of experiences in ecology field courses I had as an undergraduate, I changed my mind about becoming a physician in the second semester of my senior year. That was when I started thinking about pursuing a master's degree in biology. One of the main things that I wanted from a graduate program was field experience. I did not care where it was, I just wanted to go somewhere and experience biological research in the field.

That was the main reason I chose the marine chemical ecology group at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). This is a group that repeatedly goes to Antarctica to do research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and they had an open spot on their field team. When I was officially offered that spot, I was ecstatic.

With that offer, I found out that I would be leaving for the southernmost continent in approximately 6 months. I thought this was a long time off still and didn't realize everything that had to be done to ensure that I was physically qualified for the journey.

I am fit, so I was not worried about being physically qualified. All of the blood tests, eye tests, and flexibility tests went just fine. Then I went to the dentist and found out that I would have to get my wisdom teeth removed in order to go. Wisdom teeth could pose a serious problem if they were to become painful while in Antarctica. All of the stations are equipped with skilled medical personnel, but having oral surgery is not an option while at station. For this reason, almost everyone traveling to Antarctica has had their wisdom teeth removed. I went ahead and had the surgery and experienced a less than spectacular week recovering, but it was all in the name of science! Finally, I was ready to go to Antarctica. Now all I had to do was wait for the plane to take me away.

I was the only one out of the five people going from UAB who had never been to "the ice." This gave me a resource to tap for my pretrip checklists. They reminded me to bring vital personal items such as my passport, research material, and good sunglasses. They also gave me ideas of other things to bring to make my stay a little more comfortable (e.g., CDs, books, swimsuit, etc.). You might be wondering about the swimsuit, but there is a great thermal hydrotherapy tank (i.e., hot tub) on station that was needed after some of the more tiresome days. I am not sure what I would have done if my fellow team members had not been helpful and given me needed advice.

It took us 10 days to make the crossing from South America to Palmer Station, Antarctica, on an NSF research vessel. It normally takes 4 days, but the ice surrounding the station made it impossible for the ship to get through for several days. It was a relief when we were finally able to step back onto solid ground.

While we were on the ice, we looked at factors that affect the palatability of various antarctic macroalgae and invertebrates to relevant predators (sea stars, herbivorous amphipods, fish, and sea anemones). I was busy most days helping the divers with their gear, in addition to testing the toughness of algal species that they would bring up from dives. In my spare time, I also conducted feeding assays on some of the predators using algae and invertebrate tissue samples as well as extracts. The last responsibility I had while on station was to write journal entries for our WOW! Web site. This was a chance for me to write back to everyone following our trip and interact with friends and strangers alike over the Internet.

The tests that we completed on station are only a small part of what our group does. To make the most of our time in Antarctica, we made sure that we only did those tasks that could not be done elsewhere (e.g., collecting specimens, performing feeding assays, and completing field experiments). Now we are waiting for our frozen specimens to be sent to the States so that the rest of the lab work can be done, including collecting additional data on the nutritional quality of the macroalgal species for my master's thesis. Although it sounds strange, I am going to continue my antarctic research in a lab in warm, sunny Birmingham, Alabama.

With a maximum population of 35 to 40 scientists and support personnel, Palmer Station is by far the smallest of the three permanent NSF U.S. Antarctic Program bases. Living on a small station like Palmer was very similar to living in a large household. Everyone would eat dinner in the dining hall together and the food was always excellent. The household aspect also extended to chores. There was something called "House Mouse" every Saturday, where each person on station would be assigned a task and would be responsible for completing that chore before the end of the day. By doing this every week, the station never got too messy and everyone stayed relatively healthy.

The 2 months that I was in Antarctica were the most fascinating of my life so far. Where else can you see seals, penguins, and whales while you are at work? I was able to work in an environment that few people ever get to visit. The friendships that I made in my time on the ice will last me the rest of my lifetime and might even lead to new opportunities in the future. I have to say that heading to Antarctica as part of an NSF research team is a very rewarding experience and has reinforced my desire to become a biologist so that I may one day give a student the experience that my professor has given me.

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