Women of Antarctica

It's not as difficult as one might think to get to Antarctica; there are all kinds of tours that will take you down there for a few days. But it's considerably harder to plan and undertake research in Antarctica. Fortunately, for those of us who fear hypothermia or who lack scientific credentials, a number of women researchers in Antarctica have blogged their adventures. As Antarctica heads into its summer, women are gearing up to return to the seventh continent.

Dawn in Antarctica is the blog of Dawn Sumner, a geology professor at the University of California, Davis who leaves soon to undertake research at Antarctica's Lake Joyce. She explains her research:

My main research questions focus on interpreting the early evolution of life, mostly by characterizing the morphology of fossil microbial communities. I am particularly interested in intricate microbial structures that are preserved in some rocks that are 2.5 to 3 billion years old (fenestrate microbialites); they were abundant until just before O2 accumulated in the atmosphere, so these structures might be able to answer some important questions about the evolution of cyanobacteria. [. . .] Thus, I am working with various other scientists to see how variations in the modern microbial structures reflect biological and environmental conditions with the goal of developing models for growth of the ancient structures. Lake Joyce plays a very important role in these studies. Most other examples of these structures are found in very shallow water hot springs and in temperate lakes. We think similar structures are also growing in the very different environmental conditions under ice in a number of Dry Valley lakes, and we want to use this very different environment to help sort out biological influences on morphology from environmental influences.

Click through to Sumner's post about her research to see some really neat photos. If you browse the archives for September 2009, you'll learn a lot about what to wear in Antarctica and how all those different layers and materials help keep researchers warm.

Sarah (AKA ICELilly), a project specialist for research projects at McMurdo Station for Raytheon Polar Services, the federal contractor for the United States Antarctic Program and National Science Foundation, is also preparing to spend months in what she terms "the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, and emptiest place on Earth." Of particular note is her journey to prove she is physically fit enough to live in Antarctica:

There is this whole, tedious medical process that every person who deploys must complete AND pass. It's called the Physically Qualifying process, or "PQ" as it's known around here. One day I received an email from our medical team upstairs in my building - "Your PQ packet is ready". This packet consisted of page after page of waivers and releases to sign, a checklist of doctors to see, a list of immunizations and vaccines required, and a 10-page intense medical questionnaire. Apparently, there is no such thing as privacy when it comes to being deployed by the Federal government. They have x-rays of every single tooth, my pap smear results, a psychological profile, and every fluid level and toe length!

Again, click through to the post to read a really interesting story.

One of my favorite Antarctic blogs is Antarctic Conservation Blog, which has thus far documented more than 2.5 years of effort to conserve artifacts from the explorer's hut left behind by Captain Robert Falcon Scott in 1911. Check out the blog category "Scott Base" to see some really interesting photos of Scott's hut, the objects preserved in it for 100 years, and today's conservators at work.

There are a few Antarctic blogs by women who have already completed their research, but their archives are definitely worth browsing. Among them is Alex and Elizabeth's blog Antarctic Summer, which documents their six months participating in this year's collection of data at the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site. Alex and Elizabeth studied phytoplankton and bio-optics as part of a larger project to understand the Western Antarctic Peninsula's ecosystems, sea ice dynamics, and long-term climate change.

Another very interesting Antarctic blog that has been archived is Viola Toniolo's Antarctic Journal. Toniolo blogged from Ross Island, where as a graduate student she studied the foraging ecology of Adelie Penguins. This is another blog with great photos, particularly of penguins.

What about you? Have you dreamed of pursuing science in Antarctica, or have you undertaken research there? Did you go as a tourist? I want to hear your thoughts.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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