Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reaching out

I never expected that my first step onto a bona fide cruise ship would be in Antarctica. Actually it wasn’t really a step so much as a shimmy up a rope ladder. Before I came here, I didn’t realize that “outreach” is an important aspect of the United States Antarctic Program’s mission. I am for the busiest season, when two or more ships come to Palmer station each week. They range in size from a 45 foot sailboat housing a French family on their way around the world to the National Geographic Explorer to a 780 foot Holland America Line cruise ship. The sailboats and commercial yachts tie up in the harbor and come ashore for a tour, a visit to the station souvenir shop, and lunch or brownies and coffee. Any scientists who have time are encouraged to come to the galley and talk to the visitors about our work and life on station. This is actually a great public relations opportunity for the USAP, to show what they are doing with taxpayer dollars. And of course the visitors are excited to see real live Antarcticans. The question they all ask is “How did you get here?” often closely followed by “How can I get here?” For some, this is their first interaction with scientists. I was told that I didn’t look crazy enough to be a scientist (What, no googley eyes or Einstein hair?), to which I replied that I am still practicing.

However the cruise ships with more than 200 passengers, which are too large to enter the harbor don’t come to us. We come to them, on zodiacs that to them appear to have materialized from the icy hinterland. As the ship cruises around the nearby waters, we spend several hours giving science talks and question and answer sessions. It is a really fun opportunity to leave the station and explore the surrounding landscape. It is also a chance to get haircuts and enjoy the pools onboard! On our last Sunday at Palmer, the cruise ship Amsterdam visited and we took a ride down the Lemaire Channel. This narrow passage is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the continent, and for good reason. The entrance is marked by a black cliff thousands of feet high surrounded by gleaming ice. It seemed to me like an obsidian-dark version of El Capitan, rising from a watery valley floor. More mountains and glaciers stretching miles back from the shore continued to unfold as we made our way between the walls. According to Wikipedia, this area is called “Kodak alley,” and we were lucky enough to see it on the only brilliantly sunny day in over a week of fog and snow. We had to stop about halfway through because further on the channel became too narrow for the ship to turn around. In the spirit of Antarctic giddiness, the captain did a 540 degree turn, just for fun.

But seriously, the outreach at Palmer and onboard the ships was one of my favorite activities in Antarctica. I loved answering questions from “Why is the ice blue?” and “How is coal formed in Antarctica?” to “What food do you miss most?” (Answer: None, I eat better here than at home!) Explaining what I do here simply and succinctly, without using any scientific terms is a challenge and an exercise that I think every scientist should do frequently. It makes you really think about the significance of say, bacterial growth rates, without falling back on jargon. Other scientists are so devoted to their work and understand the joy of it so easily that I don’t have to justify myself as much to them. “Understanding biogeochemical pathways” is enough of an explanation. But the public is much more demanding because pinpointing chemical reactions is not a raison d’etre for them; they want to know the big picture. And in the end, both in the interests of integrated science and competition for limited grant money, the big picture is what every scientist needs to be able to explain best. I think that communicating science, either to the public or to policy makers may be a role that I am interested in pursuing further in my life. But first I need the science credentials to back it up, so bring on the biogeochemistry!

I have posted an exciting video on my Day of the Whales post, you may enjoy watching it. I've also added photos to Palmer Station, Palmer Science, Polar Plunge and Camping in Antarctica so check them out. And comment, comment, comment! If you like a particular post, please let me know! It will put a smile on my face and even if you can't see that smile, it's there - smiles aren't like trees in the forest.


  1. So did you get any questions like, which way is the bathroom? or, how do I get to the canyon?

  2. haha no, but I did get offered a shower