An Unforgettable Experience


The two reactions I most often come across when I mention that I work in antarctic research is "how wonderful" or "I could never go there because it's too cold". For me the issue of being cold was farthest from my mind. I never thought I would be offered the opportunity to go to Antarctica, as it seemed to be a privilege that only highly experienced scientists would be given. But I didn't know then what I do know now: Many antarctic researchers are graduate and PhD students. It is a very rewarding and international field, and I am still in antarctic research 10 years and four summer seasons after my first trip.

Following my major in chemistry, I had no desire to work in industrial chemistry and was seriously considering leaving science. I started a vacation scholarship program in chemistry at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Marine Laboratories and found that science could indeed be interesting. When the fellowship expired, I did not want to move back to industrial science even though there were a lot more jobs. So instead, I volunteered with the marine group, working on everything from lipids in fish to ancient bacteria. After 6 months, my supervisor found some soft grant money for me and at the end of the year, one of these grants included work in the Antarctic. After this, I gradually moved into microbial ecology because my supervisor, who was a chemist, had strong connections with the Australian microbiology research group. Microbial ecology also covers a much broader range of fields and so was more interesting to me.

In Hobart, having proved yourself (and if you have the right connections), it is moderately easy to get to work in the Antarctic if you have your heart set on it. This is because Hobart is the Australian gateway to the Antarctic, and many people--both international and national--move here if they have an interest in the area. Many scientists start their antarctic research by working or studying at the Australian Antarctic Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) or the Institute of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies (IASOS).

Recent advances in molecular techniques have allowed a rapid and far greater understanding of the ecology of bacteria in the marine and antarctic environments. Moreover, greater attention had been paid in recent years to the biotechnological potential of microorganisms that produce enzymes and other chemical compounds that help them survive in such a harsh environment. The Antarctic CRC has had a successful partnership with a pharmaceutical firm because of the potential of these novel chemicals.

The Antarctic is not owned by any one nation so there are many strong international research collaborations, particularly with respect to climate change studies. An example of this is the Australian climate variation cruise that I went on during November and December 2001 that had 75 scientists from 15 different nations. Working with so many scientists in the close confines of a ship means that the personal traits of tolerance and the ability to adapt and think laterally when equipment needs to be fixed or modified are advantageous. A good sense of humour and patience is also beneficial, as sometimes even the smallest things take a lot longer when faced with cold temperatures, strong winds, and limited facilities.

The experience of being alongside such a diverse group of international researchers and their varied projects is also one of the highlights of these cruises. These scientists include glaciologists who specialize in sea ice; chemical and physical oceanographers who are looking at changes in CO2, iron cycling, chlorofluorocarbons, and ocean circulation; biologists who are working with krill, squid, seals, or whales; as well as other microbiologists looking at the bacterial and algal communities and their production. Quite a number of Australian antarctic scientists have completed work in the Arctic because of the obvious similarities between the two regions. Marine science and oceanography are so dependent on the nature of the world's oceans that many tropical and temperate scientists are also commonly found studying antarctic systems.

The conditions on the ship are good for both science and living. The cruises I have been on have had either three or four people per room for transfer to continental work, or one or two people per room for a marine science cruise. The Australian research vessel, the Aurora Australis, has a lounge, video room, and sauna as well as excellent food. Research ships are generally alcohol free or alcohol limited. Of course one of the best places to be is on the bridge so you can admire the ocean, especially when you are in the ice or there is a 17-metre swell. However, big seas are only wonderful as long as you have your sea legs and if you are not trying to work when the seas are horrendous.

The opportunities for antarctic research in Australia are good if you choose the right project. The IASOS has over 60 researchers from glaciology to biology and oceans policy, as well as the same number of students who are doing postgraduate courses, masters, or PhDs. One of the major areas of importance for senior scientists, and for people doing their PhDs in the Australian Antarctic Territory, is the length of time you have in the field and the necessity of having a suitable project. Usually the projects are thoroughly screened to ensure the best outcomes for the particular season. In Australia, it is presently only possible to go by ship, as the distances are too long for many planes that are suitable for landing in the antarctic environment. An average trip to an Australian antarctic station by ship takes 2 to 5 weeks. During this time you often read papers and, because the ocean is generally fairly rough, sleeping is also a favourite pastime. Marine cruises are 6 to 9 weeks. There is some prospect for an air link in the future to help with continental research.

Antarctic research has been said to be six times more expensive than the same research in Australia. However, many projects that are designed to understand climate change, such as glaciology and oceanography, are impossible to do anywhere else. Fisheries management of the ocean, and therefore biology, is also of great importance because the Australian Antarctic Territory covers two-thirds of the Antarctic. Projects are researched through the Australian Antarctic Division, which is federally funded. Grants have to be submitted 18 months in advance of the field season that they are to be used for.

Antarctic science is a fascinating and constantly changing field. One of the most challenging and satisfying aspects is the necessity to work with scientists from different fields. Obviously, the breathtaking scenery is always a highlight. Traveling for 5 weeks past icebergs, through ever-changing sea ice, and rafts of seals and penguins, with thousands of kilometres between you and civilization is a wonderful and unforgettable experience.

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