How I got to Antarctica

The Long Version The Short Version What I do for work

The Long version:

I say it was destiny. I had been working for a small research pharmaceutical company for a couple of years. The company's drug that was in testing did not pan out the way we had hoped and the company had been through three down-sizings in a single year. Although I had survived the cuts, and had even built up the Analytical department to the point that we were going to expand, it was time to evaluate my options. It just so happens that my father collects Antarctic stamps (Yes there really are stamps for the antarctic dependencies of several countries). I was in my parents basement and was looking at my father's map of Antarctica. I thought the map was pretty cool, and as I was a member of the National Geographic Society, I thought I'd order one. I also ordered a map of Australia because that country is dear to my heart. When they arrived, I only had enough money to frame one of them. So I decided to frame the smaller map which was Antarctica. I hung it on my wall on a Wednesday. That Sunday I was just beginning to look for other jobs in the area, and there was an advert for an analytical chemist with HPLC experience to go to Antarctica. Well, I figured that I had to at least apply for the position. So I faxed in my resume that Sunday night and with great diligence, called Human resources at ASA to make sure that they had received it, and were in fact routing it in the right direction. I had a call on Wednesday and had an interview set up for the next week on a Thursday.

When I went in for my interview, I was confident, but really naive about the whole Antarctic thing. It wasn't until the interview that I found out that the entire program is coordinated by the civilian contractor (ASA) to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Englewood Colorado. I also had no idea that McMurdo station existed. It's just the largest station by far in Antarctica! Nevertheless, I gave a really good interview and was impressed by Dave, who would turn out to be my boss, but also a very close friend. Dave gave me an application to fill out and thanked me for the interview.

The next day, Dave called me and asked how long it would take to get the application back to him. ASA was clear across town and at least a 30 to 40 minute drive each way. So the trip would take more than my lunch hour. However, I was taking my parents to Colorado Springs to the airport there since it is cheaper to fly out of the Springs than DIA in Denver. So on my way back from the Springs, I sat in the ASA parking lot and filled out the paperwork. Dave said that it would be a couple of days so that he could talk to my references etc. But only about an hour later, Dave called me and asked if I wanted to go to Antarctica. Three weeks later, I was there!

Now three weeks is not a lot of time to totally re-arrange your life. I had to pack up all my belongings and put them in storage, and get ready to go. This just happened to also be the time that the new PhD that was hired to head the analytical department started. His first day was when I gave my two weeks notice. So I was putting in sixty hour weeks there as well as about 20 hrs at ASA getting oriented and trying to figure out what to expect. Needless to say, McMurdo was nothing like I expected... But that is another page.

The Short Version of How I got to Antarctica:

I took 4 planes from Denver, Colorado to get to McMurdo. (Well, what were you expecting?)

What I did for Work in the Antarctic:

I finished my fourth summer in McMurdo Station as one of the analytical chemists. Most of the work of the analytical chemists is in support of the McMurdo Dry Valley LTER. For the chemistry geeks in the audience, I will give a more detailed description. Otherwise, you might just want to skip to the next paragraph. Quite a bit of the work I did surrounds waters from the Taylor Valley lakes: Lake Fryxell, Lake Hoare, and East and West Lake Bonney. I was analyzing samples collected at various depths for NO2, NO3, NH4, and PO4. I also analyzed mostly stream water for TOC/TIC (Total Organic Carbon, Total Inorganic Carbon). There are many more tests that we performed such as CNS (Carbon, Nitrogen, Sulfur) of sediments, and trace metal analysis. We also performed drinking water and waste water testing for both McMurdo and South Pole, as well as fuel contamination studies in support of out Safety and Environmental Health Department (SEH). It also falls to the analytical chemistry group to maintain equipment such as HPLC, GC, Spectrophotometers, LSC, Fluorescence, and others.

Why have an analytical chemistry group? Well, with RPSC providing our services for the grantees, they can keep their people out in the field rather than stuck in the lab. It also provides real time data for studies currently being run. This advantage allows the grantees to possibly change sampling techniques during their season to maximize results. The other options would be to have the grantees take all their samples home and analyze them in the off season. But they might find out that mid season they *should have* changed something and the rest of the season's data may not be any good. The Antarctic program is expensive, so we want to make the most of it. Real time data is a big help in attaining that goal. The other roles that we provide for SEH, helps to make sure that the towns drinking water is safe for consumption.

I have also worked as a Marine Science Technician for the two research icebreakers Nathaniel B. Palmer, and Laurence M. Gould. That means that I was one of the laboratory supervisors on board during some research cruises in the Antarctic. I took care of the labs needs, which can be many and somewhat diverse. I set up scientific instrumentation and repaired it when it would break. I took care of the grantees chemicals and their hazardous waste. And I also helped out on deck doing a wide variety of things from mooring recovery, fishing, bottom coring, deploying nets, moving cargo, or whatever else I could help with. There is also an incredible amount of paperwork that needs to be done. Because we operate through various other countries (New Zealand, Chile, and sometimes Australia and South Africa) we may need to get special permits to bring samples collected in the Antarctic through their country on the way back to the US. It's an exciting time at sea but is a lot of work. A standard work week is 12 hr. days, seven days a week. Cruises are short and expensive to run, so we want to make sure we get as much scientific data as we can from each cruise. It's also a good thing that I have never been seasick.

In addition, I've Wintered at Palmer station. There I was the Winter Assistant Supervisor, Laboratory Operations, Palmer Station. A long title is better than a higher salary right? So I was the senior on-site laboratory position. Of course there were no grantees on station so there was no one in the labs, and there was only me, so I wasn't really supervising anyone either. The science that I had this past winter was limited to sampling sea water for chlorophyll, and archaebacteria, feeding starfish to keep them alive until the grantees showed up, and downloading weather from the automated weather station. I also helped the Science Tech. with GPS (Global Positioning System) stuff.
But most of my time was spent doing inventory of laboratory supplies and chemicals. I was also the head of the oil spill response and the chemical spill response teams. And as we were really all on the fire team, I was a first responder. That means I ran to where the alarm is going off with a 40lb fire extinguisher to try to give enough time for the rest of the fire team to suit up in their fire gear.

I am now working back in the US after five years working on the Ice. I loved my time there and the great people I worked with, but I needed to unpack my belongings and enjoy life back in the real world again. But you never know when I'll show back up for another deployment...

Antarctic indexHome


e-mail E-mail Marc at