University of Southern California

Why Take Students to Antarctica?

Donal Manahan, December 24 — Why are the earth’s poles important? The pioneering work of early polar explorers and scientists sparked the public’s interest in polar regions, yet what occurred there seemed remote and of less than pressing relevance for other parts of the globe.

We now know that there is a vital connection between the largely uninhabitable polar regions and the rest of our planet.

An early clue to these connections was the ozone hole over Antarctica. More recently, we have learned that the effects of climate change are greatest in the polar regions. We can see there what the rest of the planet has yet to experience.

To understand how climate change will affect life in polar regions, we must first understand how millions of years of evolution in icy, stable temperatures have shaped these organisms. How will these species adapt in the face of warming marine and land habitats? 

Biological studies of Antarctic organisms have a wide applicability. The cold biosphere
(consisting of habitats as cold or colder than your refrigerator) is the major environment on Earth, making up approximately 90 percent in volume of the living biosphere (including the deep ocean). 

Many of the current predictions about climate change and its impact on global biodiversity — even species extinction — are linked to changes in the cold biosphere.

Very few students have had the opportunity to study in Antarctica. This is especially true for first-time, new investigators starting their careers, individuals who may form the next generation of polar scientists. 

Antarctica is a very remote region where undertaking scientific research is a challenge. It is extremely difficult to cross the famously stormy Southern Ocean to set foot on that continent. It is even more difficult to live and work “on the ice” without extensive logistical support. 

To increase access to Antarctica for the next generation of polar scientists, the National Science Foundation supports an advanced graduate training program through the University of Southern California’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This program is held at McMurdo Station, the major base in Antarctica of the United States Antarctic Program. I am the project leader for this NSF grant and will be leading a group of 38 scientists in Antarctica in January 2010.

The goal of this program is discovery-based learning about a wide variety of Antarctic organisms and their environmental relationships. Through a series of research projects, a group of Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows will be working with five faculty and a group of teaching assistants to undertake hands-on, novel research in Antarctica. 

They will be working in two distinct settings: in the field, where collecting specimens and doing in situ experiments will involve work under the often challenging conditions of the Antarctic; and in the sophisticated laboratories operated by NSF in Antarctica, where it is possible to do cutting-edge contemporary biology.

As the field-team leader, my first concern is the safety of all personnel in the harsh environment of Antarctica. Every member of our team will be trained in field safety upon arrival in Antarctica.

We will receive formal instruction on how to travel over ice by foot and by track vehicle; how to work in and around the helicopters that support some of our field trips; how to work at the ice edge, near the open ocean; and many other aspects of field and laboratory safety. 

Since we started the Antarctic Biology Course in 1994, more than 200 scientists representing 30 nations have participated. I am extremely proud of our safety record to date — not a single accident.

My major academic goal in directing this course is to train new researchers in modern research methods to understand the biological mechanisms that are unique to life in Antarctica. 

A further aim is to train students in integrative biology, by having them study unique biological processes in the cold biosphere that span several different levels of biological organization — from individual genes to whole organisms. This basic work builds a foundation for understanding the potential consequences of climate change on the Antarctic ecosystem and the planet at large.

In addition, by working in Antarctica’s largest research station, at McMurdo, the students in the Antarctic Biology Course will learn about a wide range of Antarctic projects from direct interactions with other scientists in the other disciplines (atmospheric sciences, glaciology, chemistry, geology, geophysics, to name just a few). During their time in Antarctica, students will attend lectures on a wide range of topics that will be given daily by some of the world’s leading experts in Antarctic science. The impacts of scientific findings in Antarctica on policy issues and international treaties will also be discussed with the students.

And, finally, the course is highly effective in teaching teamwork. This can be difficult to attain in traditional Ph.D. programs, where individuals often work in isolation. From personal experience in Antarctica over the past 20 years, I have noticed how the team-oriented approaches used in our program help to create a much greater willingness of faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and students to work collaboratively on complex problems. This kind of approach offers new insights on how to enhance graduate education.

I anticipate that participants in the Antarctic Biology Course, upon returning to their home institutions, will share their excitement and personal experiences in formal classroom settings and, more informally, with their local communities.

By so doing, my hope is that we will raise the awareness of the importance of polar regions for the future of human society.

Donal Manahan is professor of biological sciences and director of USC’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

1 Comment

Hi there Donal, Congrats on a safe arrival. It is a real treat to follow you and your merry band on this blog. See you soon.