Monday, February 15, 2010

Being a Duckling

When I arrived in Punta Arenas on my way to Antarctica, the scientists whom I met would ask me if I was a “duckling.” I learned that the correct answer was “yes,” because I worked for Dr Hugh Ducklow. It certainly seemed odd at first but over time I really came to appreciate what it means to work for Hugh.

First of all, Amanda and I were at Palmer Station while Hugh was on the research cruise, so we did not have direct supervision. Hugh and his research assistant trained us as well as they could and then trusted us to do a good job – quite some faith! But it gave us confidence to know that they trusted us. In our training, Hugh showed a remarkable ability to remember what it was like to not know how to do the techniques that he has been doing for over 20 years. He still knows the mistakes that a beginner is likely to make. And when following detailed procedures, it is easy to become too focused on specifics and forget what the main objective is, but Hugh always has a sense of the big picture. He wanted us to see being in Antarctica as the most important part of our experience by making clear which science tasks were time-sensitive and which tasks could wait if there were whales to watch or freshly baked cookies to eat. As we stood on the pier under an overcast sky just before he boarded the ship, leaving us at Palmer, he said “Remember: mistakes will be made, but the most important thing is for you to have a good time.” And he really meant it.

As the chief scientist of Long Term Ecological Research on the Antarctic Peninsula, Hugh made an effort to bring the group together socially. This was admirable, because there were 23 scientists from 5 different institutions, plus the ship’s crew and it would be easy for the group to become fragmented. Hugh made sure that we all got drinks together in Punta Arenas before we left, and he participated in the New Year’s celebration on the ship. Although I wasn’t on the research cruise, I heard that he made sure that everyone had the opportunity to set foot on the Antarctic continent when they made a stop there. Hugh is serious about Antarctic traditions, and halfway through our time he threatened not to take Amanda home when he heard that she hadn’t yet taken the polar plunge (luckily she did, on the morning that we left). And Hugh has his lips sealed about the procedures of the ceremony that took place on the cruise when they crossed the Antarctic Circle. I suspect that he may play the role of “King Neptune” himself!

But my favorite aspect of Hugh is his excitement about Antarctica. On the passage from Chile, I could feel his energy increasing with each mile that we traveled further south. He became more talkative and animated, reminding me of descriptions of explorers who seemed to only “be themselves” when inside a polar circle. Some of the graduate students appeared to be somewhat jaded even in their second field season, but I think that Hugh will always be looking forward to the next time he is in Antarctica.

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