Did I tell you I share a college-sized dorm room with Michael Studinger? He’s the project scientist for Operation IceBridge. He is responsible for ALL the science and scientific data collected. If the project has a central nervous system, Michael is the brain in that model. He has a Ph.D. in geophysics from the University of Bremen and the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany. Who is Alfred Wegener? Oh, only the guy who came up with plate tectonics 50 years ahead of its time. Michael is a world-renown glaciologist and polar researcher in his own right. He and his teams have pioneered many remote sensing techniques. On this campaign OIB pioneered a technique using the overlapping cycloid motion of the laser along the ground to enable data to be processed more than five times faster than before.
Everyone on the team refers to him as Michael, not Dr. Studinger. He has an easy going leadership style and earns respect by giving respect. He never dismisses an opinion. He listens to everything his team tells him and takes all questions and concerns seriously. And his team will do anything for him. Growing up with a German father, I am used to, and appreciate, his dry and sometimes subtle sense of humor. It’s the twinkle in his eye when he’s kidding around that immediately puts you at ease.
Michael is also one of the few, truly brilliant people, I have met who can immediately meet you at your ‘level.’ People described Richard Feynman as having the same gift. Michael doesn’t talk down to you, nor does he talk below you. It comes from his passion about polar science and his desire for everyone to understand, not just the nuts and bolts, but the importance of polar science. He’s a lot of fun for a high school teacher to hang out with!
Later in this journal there’s much more about Michael and his earlier days.
So what’s a day in the field like for a project scientist?
0500 Michael wakes up
0530 Showered, shaved, and coffee made, he’s already on the computer checking on programs he let run overnight, e-mails, and the day’s schedule
0600 Team members begin waking up and stopping in to ask Michael questions and deal with issues that have cropped up – he rarely has more than 10 minutes of uninterrupted time throughout his day
0630 Michael, Christy Hansen, and John Sonntag head to the weather office to choose the day’s mission out of the possibilities they mapped out the night before
0700 Back from the weather office, Michael is back on the computer e-mailing the flight plan and answering the dozen e-mails he received during the half hour he was gone
0730 To the plane. Get equipment turned on, warmed up, and ready to go. The flight crew has been here since 0630.
0800 The last of the team arrive. Door closes and engines fire up.
0830 In the air.
0830 – 1630 Flying. Michael is in constant communication with the six data teams, navigators, and pilots. The plane can still communicate via a text system with the ground, so Michael is not un-plugged while in the air. Michael is an excellent photographer and videographer. I learned that when Michael, a guy who’s spent much of his career in beautiful places, gets out of his seat to take a picture, you’d better look yourself because it’s bound to be spectacular.
Due to budget cuts there is no dedicated photographer/videographer on this campaign so Michael has added one more job to his list. He doesn’t complain about it because he wants people to see the amazing sites and science Operation IceBridge does.
1630 Back on the ground. Michael, Christy, and John head to the weather office to look at weather for tomorrow and queue up a few possible routes.
1700 Michael is back ‘home’ to write a daily summary, answer more e-mail, and prepare for the science meeting.
1830 Science meeting. Somewhere in here Michael has changed out of his flight suit and eaten dinner, but even living with him, it’s hard to catch him doing anything but working. At the science meeting he always begins by asking the team members if there are announcements or concerns. It’s a message that they come first; not him. The science meeting recaps the weather, looks ahead to tomorrow, and plots out possibilities for tomorrow’s mission.
1900 Michael spends much of the evening on the computer, downloading photos, editing video, writing reports and summaries, talking to more people, writing a quick Matlab script, etc.
2200 Lights out to get some rest before doing it all again tomorrow; six days per week.
It cannot be overstated that Michael and the entire IceBridge team work extremely hard. They all have a deep sense of purpose for the mission and a passion for science. There may be more prestigious jobs than being a scientist, but Michael shrugs his shoulders and says in his baritone German accent, ‘But then I would be questioning what I am doing … and who else would be gathering the data.’ And that’s the fundamental issue for Michael and his team. They are gathering data with a precision and with details never seen before. Their work is instrumental … critical, to understanding how the planet works. That understanding can then shape our future.
I sat down with Michael and asked him a few questions. The following is paraphrased from that conversation.
What do you want people to know about the science behind Operation IceBridge?
Michael told me that Operation IceBridge is trying to understand the physical processes that impact the growth and reduction of ice sheets over time; that the work is interesting from a scientific standpoint, but it also means a great deal to the next generation.
Coming from a seismology beginning, he makes the point that it’s easy to see why scientists study earthquakes – there is a direct and immediate impact on our lives. While the changing ice might be less urgent, it is no less important to understand the obvious implications for the future.
Where did you grow up and what did you do as a kid?
Michael grew up in Schwabisch Hall, a small rural town, near Stuttgart, Germany. As a boy, he played outside a lot and explored. He said, ‘My parents were okay with that as long as I came home before dinner.’ He was interested in astronomy and geology. He points to a teacher that took a group on a field trip to a cave that was not publically accessible for sparking an interest in geology.
What kind of student were you in high school?
‘I was average, but better in math and science. It was mostly a motivational issue.’ He says this last part with a self-deprecating smile.
What were your interests in high school?
Michael was also interested in music. He played saxophone and bassoon and thought about becoming a professional musician until realizing it was difficult to make a living as a jazz musician.
Michael graduated high school in 1986, but before entering college, spent 15 months in the army as part of Germany’s compulsory military service. He played in the military band while serving – still keeping hope alive for a professional music career.
What got you interested in geophysics?
Michael told me that in Germany there were brochures around about different careers that were available. He read one about geophysics. He said, ‘I did a little research and saw that it combined earth science, which I was interested in, plus physics and travel. That seemed adventurous.’
And then you went to University; tell me about that.
Michael studied geophysics at the University of Munich and out of a starting class of 15, he was one of only 6 to finish with his Master’s degree. He found he liked the field work and many of his studies concerned seismology. He worked on a project in which he was involved in the design, assembly, deployment, data collection, analysis, and concluding phases, and he said he liked that kind of work as he could see the entire project from beginning to end.
In 1993 he was invited along on a two month seismic expedition to eastern Greenland – some of the same area he now flies over with IceBridge. During the project they found that arctic foxes were chewing through data cables laid between the seismographs and the data loggers. This forced team members to camp in the fjords to keep an eye on the cables, chase away foxes when possible, and repair the cables when ‘out-foxed.’ He said with some incredulity, ‘We camped out in this beautiful fjord, hiked around during the day, fixed cables once in a while, and we were getting paid to do it … not a bad job.’
He returned to Germany, finished a drilling project that was part of his master’s thesis, and then left on another expedition to Antarctica to start his Ph.D. As he’s telling me this you can see the joy in his eyes as he reflects back on what was the most adventurous year he had experienced up to that point.
And then your doctorate?
Michael earned a graduate spot at the University of Bremen and the Alfred Wegener Institute. He spent much more time in the field, mostly in Antarctica, and finished his doctorate in three years. He told me, ‘So I was writing about Antarctica and Gondwana and what happened 186 million years ago and I kept thinking, what is the point?’
I’m only guessing, but Michael is a practical man, and that practicality has shaped much of his career since earning his Ph.D. in 1998. After graduating, Michael took a position as a research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth ObservatoryA location used for observing terrestrial and/or celestial events. in New York, spending a good deal of time flying in twin otter aircraft over glaciers and ice sheets
Michael began working with Operation IceBridge in 2009 as part of the gravimetry team from Lamont-Doherty. In 2010 He joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Cryospheric Sciences Lab and was named project scientist for Operation IceBridge.
His mother and two sisters, one older and one younger, live in Germany and are all social workers, as was his father, who passed away a few years ago. Michael says with a smile, ‘I chose a very odd career compared to everyone else in my family.’
What about the science in Operation IceBridge relates to high school physics?
Michael pointed to basic Newtonian physics and the importance of understanding the forces involved in glaciers and ice sheets. Since ice flows, fluid dynamics are important, too. He said, ‘There’s the mechanical part and there’s the energy budget from a thermodynamic point of view and you add those together with a lot of math and there you have it.’
And there you have it. I hope you got a sense of Michael’s easy-going personality and wry sense of humor. He’s the kind of guy that makes a perfect roommate, colleague, or friend. He even made me look good in my video interview. I am going to miss him.