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September 14, 2010 Reflections and Advice from Teachers who have gone to Antarctica

Yes, I'm down to my last week before I’m off. Two years ago I first learned about people doing research in Antarctica. Ever since I’ve been captivated and intrigued. I applied for this PolarTREC teacher position more than a year ago and thoughts and ideas have bounced around in my head ever since. I finally got accepted about five months ago, and I’ve been preparing in all kinds of ways ever since.

So far just the preparation for this expedition has been an amazing experience. I’ve loved talking to all sorts of children and people and sharing with them a little bit about our upcoming experience. Visiting schools has been just as rewarding to me as it’s been to the students. Seeing the kids’ faces light up when they see the pictures of the vast landscape of ice or the nifty track vehicles or when they hear about how we’ll be drilling deep holes to see what’s under the ice has made me beam with a happy, grateful feeling. Though many times I’m still having to say, “I don’t know”, I’ve loved trying to explain to friends, colleagues, and strangers not only the challenges of working down on the harshest continent but the significance of being part of this brilliant research team that is investigating changes in this fantastic underwater world. I’ve read books, watched movies, and prodded and harassed Stacy, Bob, DJ, and anyone that I can about Antarctica. Everyone has been helpful and patient, even if they sometimes smile at me and my ignorance.

I do want to share with you a few comments from former teachers that have gone down to Antarctica with Stacy in years past.

Elizabeth Gibbs went down in 2004 to work with Stacy on an expedition that involved studying how seafloor communities changed as a result of a sewage treatment plant being introduced into McMurdo. Before sewage from the toilets at the research station would go out a pipe and be dumped into the ocean without being treated. In early 2003 a new sewage treatment plant was completed that cleaned the waste before it went out the pipe. Stacy and Elizabeth studied how the seafloor communities were affected as part of the ASPIRE project - Antarctic Sewage Pollution Impact and Recovery Experiments. (We will actually go back to the same area and continue to study the effects.)

Andrew Thurber, Stacy Kim, Bob Zook, Kathy Conlan, Jennifer Fisher, and Mike Don
The ASPIRE gang: Andrew Thurber, Stacy Kim, Bob Zook, Kathy Conlan, Jennifer Fisher, and Mike Donellen at Cape Chocolate

is a 7th grade science teacher from Rhode Island, who has also taught outdoor education and has taken her students on all kinds of field trips. I asked her about her experience in Antarctica. Here is what she says:

Where to start? It was all so amazing and a high point of my life.

I feel so privileged to have been among a relatively small number of people on Earth who have traveled to the southernmost continent, and even more so to have been able to go to McMurdo station and work with an amazing group of scientists. I love to travel and have been to a number of different places, but nothing prepared me for the breathtaking beauty and alien landscape of Antarctica. My time there was full of memorable moments, from the very first day. Landing on the ice and stepping out into the brilliant white all around. Sunset at 11pm from Hut Point. My first night camping on the ice and stepping outside the tent to see Mt. Erebus steaming away in the distance. Adventures driving all kinds of new vehicles. Peering down into the dive hole to see sea stars in 80 feet of crystal clear water. Sleeping out in a tent at Cape Chocolate. Sitting in an observation tube under the ice watching jellyfish and plankton go by in the current, then seeing a seal go up to the surface to breathe. Many fun times with the scientists.

Besides the beauty and unique nature of the environment, I loved the character of the people - from scientists to kitchen staff - who venture to the ice. Antarctica tends to attract intelligent, resourceful people with lots of energy and a good attitude. There's a big emphasis on personal responsibility; it is such a challenging and potentially very dangerous place that survival and success is dependent on individuals understanding that they must be active participants in their own safety and experience. The scientists must plan everything carefully and be creative about solving problems as they come up. If you break something, you must figure out how to achieve your goals without it - it might be a long before you get a replacement - if you ever do! People are also a lot of fun - serious about both their work and their play.

From a science point of view, I loved learning about the ecosystem under the ice, looking at some of the tiny creatures that the scientists were using as indicators of ecosystem health and recovery. I was fascinated by the many organisms that are similar to those we have here in Rhode Island, yet very different - such as sea stars, isopods, and amphipods that are SO much bigger than ours, and seals of different species than ours here.

Hiking from Castle Rock, Elizabeth on the left and Stacy on the right
Hiking from Castle Rock, Elizabeth on the left and Stacy on the right

Elizabeth also kindly gave me some advice:

Just take advantage of any opportunity you have there; I'm sure you will. I regret not doing the Polar Plunge. Meet as many scientists as you can; the work going on there is all so amazing. If you have the chance, visit the Penguin Ranch and go down in the observation tube.

Thank you Elizabeth. I will take advantage of all the opportunities that I can including jumping in the water without a wetsuit!

Mindy Bell is another teacher that went down with Stacy in 2007. Mindy grew up on an island in Minnesota, taught science to 7-12 graders in Alaska and now teaches secondary science in Arizona. Mindy went to Antarctica for SCINI’s first year when they used the ROV to make maps of the seafloor around McMurdo.

I looked at some of Mindy’s journals and I love some of her quotes and her interpretations of them:

“’Ross Island is not a place for a settlement; it is a place for an elaborately equipped scientific station...’ A prescient statement by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, when you consider all the science that is being done at McMurdo Station almost 100 years later!”

And another one from one of her last days in Antarctica:

“’Ice people say that when you leave the Antarctic, part of you stays behind forever.’ From Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, by Sara Wheeler.  I do feel as if I have left a bit of myself on this amazing continent, but mostly I feel I have taken much from Antarctica. I have memories and photos and new friends and many learnings to share from this amazing experience."

Mindy holding a chunk of heart-shaped ice they pulled out of a dive hole!
Mindy holding a chunk of heart-shaped ice they pulled out of a dive hole!

Here is what Mindy has to say about her experience:

Then, on September 30th, I left Flagstaff for seven weeks. I was emotional leaving my daughter and husband for so long, but also excited about the adventure ahead. And adventure it was! Highlights for me included the everyday work with my science team on common goals; the success of getting our Remotely Operated Vehicle SCINI in the ocean relaying underwater images to us on the ice surface; finding the “Lost Experiments” of Dr. Paul Dayton after their 40-year unrecorded submergence; hiking in each others footsteps to the Commonwealth Glacier in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica; watching the fascinating Adélie Penguins of the Cape Royds Colony; seeing the historic huts from both Scott’s Discovery expedition near McMurdo Station and Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition at Cape Royds; and experiencing daily life in a crazy place like McMurdo Station!

After not having thought about Antarctica at all for most of my life, now I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. The most stunning realization I had was soon after I arrived at McMurdo; all of the “stuff” and all of the people at McMurdo were there to support science. Over 80 buildings, over 1,000 people in the summer season, giant tanks of fuel, lots of crazy vehicles, and all there to support the scientific activities taking place at and around McMurdo. The field camps, on the ice and on the continent, were built, maintained, heated, and stocked by people working for science even though they themselves were not scientists. From the amazing pecan rolls that Nick the baker made for Sunday brunch, to the surreal warmth of the greenhouse, McMurdo strives to add human comforts to a place otherwise devoted solely to science.

And everyone works hard. The scientists, because of their relatively short field season, work ALL THE TIME. Their idea of a break is to go eat lunch, or maybe sleep for a few hours. But there is no vacation at McMurdo. If there is down time because bad weather limits travel, the scientists catch up on their paperwork. And the support staff works from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm 6 days a week, for six months straight. They get a normal two-day weekend for Thanksgiving and for Christmas only. So the scientists, cooks, custodians, mechanics and carpenters all work hard and long hours.

We can see Antarctica on so many different levels. We can see Antarctica as a place, with its physical characteristics and its limited repertoire of sensory stimulation. There is cold, but not warmth. There is dryness but rarely moisture. There is white and blue, but not green or yellow. There is limited taste and smell. There is no sound except the wind.

We can see Antarctica as function, honoring the Antarctic Treaty, and promoting peaceful studies of science. And the variety and amount of science is staggering.

We can see Antarctica as metaphor. Ernest Shackleton wrote: ““We all have our own White South.”   A colleague of Shackleton’s notes in his diary that for Shackleton “Antarctica did not exist. It was the inner, not the outer world that engrossed him.” Later, in his novel V, Thomas Pynchon writes “You wait. Everyone has an Antarctic.”

Antarctica has no early human history, no native populations. The shared history, for today’s scientists, explorers and mechanics from many different countries, is only 100 years old. And so the few lucky people that get the chance to go to Antarctica, continue that history.

My responsibility as an educator, given this incredible opportunity, is to share what I have learned about Antarctica on all these levels. Not only do I want my students to gain an appreciation of Antarctica as a place, and the history of Antarctic exploration, but I want them to understand the critical role people of different nationalities had in writing, and now following, an international treaty to protect this most remote and pristine of places. The lessons we learn in Antarctica can be applied to the students’ world.

I hope our youth find their way to contribute to a future sustainable world. They can be the diplomat, scientist, or cook. They can be artists, enhancing our senses and inviting us to experience an image more deeply through their art, and even encouraging us to action through the power of their art. Seeing Antarctica from different lenses may allow our youth to see more complex arenas of their lives in the same way.

Stacy told me she wanted to study the ecologic interactions of marine organisms in Antarctica because it was a simpler system. She feels by studying a simple system she can learn things that are applicable to more complex systems, and understand better how humans are interacting with and changing that system.

Can we all learn from this harsh white continent? Learn not just the science, but learn the lessons of getting along with others and accomplishing things that are bigger together than we would ever do apart? Our world faces huge challenges at this time. In our own ways, we will face and meet these challenges, and discover within our own white souths some abilities we may not have known we had.

I am getting more and more and even more excited! Don’t you all just want to come with me?

Mindy also gave me some advice:
Go with the flow and be open to hard work!
I’m ready!
Lastly, I asked her “What did you not need?”
Her response was “some extra clothes - it is okay to just wear the same stuff over and over.”
I guess that’s why everyone is giving me a hard time for bringing twice as much as they are!

With that, I’ve got 1 week to go, and yes I am SUPER- EXCITED!!!!


Hiking from Castle Rock, Elizabeth on the left and Stacy on the right
Mindy holding a chunk of heart-shaped ice they pulled out of a dive hole!
Andrew Thurber, Stacy Kim, Bob Zook, Kathy Conlan, Jennifer Fisher, and Mike Don


Tina Sander's picture
Author: Tina Sander
Expedition: Antarctic Seafloor Ecology
Weather Summary: Sunny and 59 degrees in Santa Cruz. COLD in McMurdo
Temperature: -52.0° F