Association of Polar Early Career Scientists

The APECS Education and Outreach Committee is starting up a new initiative to showcase outreach activities by scientists, researchers, research institutions and field stations in the Polar Regions and communities. We want to highlight ongoing outreach efforts as well as provide resources and examples of both successes and challenges for current outreach practitioners. If you have an outreach story you'd like to have featured or know of a Polar research institution or field station actively pursuing outreach, public consultation or community based research, please email your story or suggestions for a story to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.!

Communicating Science Through Art

My name is Jill Pelto, I am a Masters student at the University of Maine in the Earth and Climate Sciences Department, and I work in the Antarctic. My research addresses the history of the ice sheet over the last 10,000 years, focusing on the retreat of ice in the southern Ross Embayment. This sort of paleoclimate work is done in large part to learn about the sensitivity of the Antarctic Ice Sheet in the past to various ocean and climate parameters, to better understand how it may respond to current change.

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I am also a climate change artist, and I create paintings that address both positive and negative environmental topics, with the aim of using art as a platform for effective science communication.

US Blog 2As an undergraduate student I worked on two separate majors at UMaine: Studio Art and Earth Science, and I developed a strong drive to link the often disparate fields. In my painting and printmaking courses I sought to compose images that shared what I was learning in my classes about the climate and glacier systems. I was inspired to share important environmental topics, as well as subjects that are simply fascinating to learn about. I was able to work in the field several times in my undergraduate career with Dr. Brenda Hall, and created field sketches and watercolors while doing work in these places, which included a field season in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Over my five years in these programs I continued to develop ideas for showcasing science in my art, with my overarching goal being a meaningful communication about our natural world.

I wanted to gauge reactions to my artwork, and my initial audience was my classmates, professors, friends, and family. I was able to hear various interpretations of what my art communicated to them both emotionally and informationally. My objective was to engage people broadly by creating pieces that could express clearly and impactfully.

So far, the most successful and creative approach I have developed is incorporating graphical data into my artwork. I use x-y plots that tell simple stories of change over time, and link these with a visual message about the research question. Several topics I’ve chosen are: increasing temperatures over the last century and how this affects forest fire frequency; melting sea ice in the arctic and how this impacts species that rely on it; a shift in the United States to green energy use and how this inspires further conservation.

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One of the first steps I plan to take as I finish graduate school and begin my career is to collaborate with scientists from a myriad of disciplines to communicate the research that they do with a broader audience. Art is a powerful form of expression, and is an excellent platform for inspiring thought. Whether I can transform reactions to my art into inspiring action is a question I hope to be able to answer in the years to come; but, without a doubt, I will try!

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Another major goal of mine is to continue to use my data art to teach younger generations about our changing world. It’s absolutely crucial that we share and instill an understanding of the impact of humanity on the environment, in school systems world-wide. I helped to develop a lesson plan about my work with Science Friday’s Ryan Becker, and it has been absolutely wonderful to see the creations of students from around the world, and how the students have learned from this! (

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I still have a lot to learn about communication, and I am continuing to explore different ways to mix science and art. One of the biggest inspirations for me has been working in Antarctica, it was so impactful to actually visualize the role of the ice sheets for maintaining the sea level and climate we live in today. Once I finish my degree, I plan to make a series about the beauty and vulnerability of these locations.

As early career scientists, we are entering a field that needs more clear, and more diverse, communication with the public. I encourage you all to seek various methods of sharing your research, and note that collaboration with others (journalists, artists, writers, teachers, etc.) is a really successful way to achieve this. It’s important for us as scientists to start thinking outside of the box, and begin to explore unique, alternative methods through which to communicate science.

Telling People About the Stuff You Study

Effective communication of science to a wide audience is arguably as important as the science itself, although it receives less attention in the academic world. As a first-year master’s student, I can finally say that I am relatively confident in my ability to read an academic journal article and come away from it with an understanding of the scientific questions answered and the big-picture implications of the results—provided that the paper relates to my specific sub-field. The further the topic strays from atmospheric dynamics as inferred from ice core chemistry, however, the more lost I become. Now don’t get me wrong, I totally understand the importance of publishing technical papers in academic journals written for an audience of experts. But everyone—experts, non-experts, people of all academic levels and concentrations—is dependent upon nature. And in a world where the natural sciences are increasingly tied to politics, it is essential for policymakers, and those who elect them, to be able to understand how we affect nature and how we can better coexist with it.

One of my favorite sessions at the 2016 American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference involved talks by scientists about their research, with the caveat that they could only use the 1,000 most used English words. This was a refreshing break from many of the other talks I’d been to that day, which, as an undergrad attending my first AGU meeting, had been way over my head.

It took one Google search to find this helpful Text Editor created by Theo Sanderson. The page allows users to type into a box and underlines any word that is not one of the 1,000 most used. As an example, here is the original text of my undergraduate thesis title and abstract followed by the “translation” I came up with:


“Evaluating Precipitation in Southern Alaska using Ice Core and Automatic Weather Station Records”

Precipitation in Alaska is sensitive to the Aleutian Low (ALow) pressure system and North Pacific sea-surface temperatures, as shown by the increase in Alaskan sub-Arctic precipitation associated with a shift in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) in 1976. Precipitation in the high-elevation accumulation zones of Alaskan alpine glaciers provides critical mass input for glacial mass balance, which has been declining in recent decades due to warmer summer temperatures despite the winter precipitation increase. Twin ice cores holding a climate record of more than 1,200 years, collected from the summit plateau of Mount Hunter in Denali National Park, Alaska, show a doubling of annual snow accumulation over the past 150 years, with most of the change observed in the winter. Other alpine ice cores collected from the Alaska and St. Elias ranges show similar snowfall increases over recent decades. Here we use Automatic Weather Station (AWS) data from the Mt. Hunter drill site (elevation 3,900 m a.s.l.) and from nearby Denali climber’s Base Camp (elevation 2,195 m a.s.l.), as well as from various low- altitude coastal sites throughout south-central Alaska, to evaluate alpine and lowland Alaskan precipitation on annual, seasonal, and storm-event timescales over the time period from 2013- 2016. Through this analysis, we determine that synoptic patterns associated with individual storms at the Denali ice core site are consistent with seasonally-averaged anomalies for the wettest seasons over the entire south-central Alaska region, which provides confidence in our ability to use the ice core as a regional climate proxy. We focus on the role of variable ALow and North Pacific High strength in influencing seasonal variations in Alaskan storm tracks and find that differences in synoptic conditions, such as precipitation, sea level pressure, and winds, are associated with differences in the paths of regional-scale storms between summer and winter. Our analysis will improve our paleoclimate interpretations of the 1,200-year Mt. Hunter accumulation record as well as improve our ability to understand low-elevation hydroclimate proxies from lake sediment cores.

1,000 Most Used Words Translation:

“Studying stuff that falls from the sky using sticks of ice and stuff that has already fallen from the sky”

Stuff that falls from the sky in the highest-up US state responds to changes in where the air goes and to how warm the big water body is. In high-up places that are home to really big bodies of ice, ice-rain is important for the big bodies of ice to stay as big as they are. They have been getting smaller because it is getting warmer, even though more ice-rain is falling during the time of year when it's cold. Two sticks of ice were taken from one of the big ice bodies, and they can tell us what the air used to feel like and how much stuff used to fall from the sky. They show that in the past 150 years, the number of ice-rains has gone up times two. Most of the going-up has happened during the part of the year when it's cold. Other ice sticks taken from places close by show pretty much the same thing. Here, we look at how much ice-rain has fallen from the sky at the high-up place we took the ice sticks from, at a slightly lower place, and at several different places that are much lower (next to the big body of water). We are studying how much has fallen at these places each year, each part of the year, and during times when the sky is angry, for the time from 2013 to 2016. By doing this, we found out that when the sky is angry at the high-up places, it is also angry at the lower places. This makes us feel that we can use the ice sticks to find out how the air used to feel and how much stuff used to fall from the sky in this whole area. We also focus on how the sky is acting to make rain and ice-rain come in from different directions at different times of year. This study will help us use the ice sticks to learn more about how it used to be in this area. It will also make it easier to use sticks of brown stuff from the floor of little bodies of water to understand how the air used to feel and how much stuff fell from the sky in low places that don't have any big bodies of ice.

Obviously, effective science communication for a wide audience would fall somewhere in between these two renditions (unless you happen to be giving a talk in a kindergarten classroom). This task was initially difficult for me—I don’t normally think of storms as “times when the sky is angry”! —but it became easier as my brain shifted its way of communicating. This makes me believe that science can be made understandable for an audience of any level, as long as we challenge our minds to think in ways we aren’t used to, or necessarily comfortable with. Fundamentally, what truths do we as scientists want to convey?

With that, I challenge you scientists out there to try this exercise for yourself! And if you are coming from outside of science and run into road-blocks in understanding technical scientific writing on a platform put out to the general public, reach out to the authors to let them know. For it is the collective responsibility of scientists to make the science we do digestible by the general public.

IPRN talk: What lies beneath the ice? - Role of Geologists in Antarctic Sciences

IPRN talk March 2017Indian Polar Research Network (IPRN) (APECS India) in collaboration with Department of Geology, University of Delhi organised a talk titled “What lies beneath the ice - Role of Geologists in Antarctic Sciences” on 24th March 2017 in Ram Lal Anand College, University of Delhi. This event was to mark the International Polar Week Spring 2017 celebration and followed this year’s theme of Polar week - People of the Poles: Human Use and Appreciation of Earth’s Polar Regions. The event was organised to introduce and popularize Antarctic sciences to the undergraduate geology students of Delhi University.

2 Prof. Pant explaining Why explore AntarcticaThe event commenced with an introduction of Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) and its national committee Indian Polar Research Network (IPRN) to the audience. I explained the significant findings about the melting of Antarctic ice sheet and subsequent predictions of sea level rise emphasizing the role Antarctica plays in regulating the global climate and oceanographic system. Prof. Naresh Pant, who has been working in Antarctic Geosciences from last 30 years, briefed the audience about the recently identified research priorities for Antarctic Earth Sciences. The introductory session brought out the key reasons for conserving and exploring Antarctica to the audience and initiated a dialogue.

3 Mayuri explaining her research workThe third component of the talk was to highlight the fields and disciplines through which geologists contribute to Antarctic Sciences. This was described by Ms. Mayuri Pandey who is a research scholar at Department of geology, University of Delhi and also an IPRN member. She has recently submitted her PhD in Antarctic sciences and has been a part of 36th Indian Expedition to Antarctica. Her work includes provenance studies of the Wilkes Land through IODP (U1359) sediments, paleoclimate studies through clay minerals and interpreting sub ice geology through different methods. She aptly explained different areas of geology in polar sciences that are: Glaciology, Climatology, marine sediments study and interpreting sub ice geology through indirect methods like geophysics and remote sensing with a glimpse of her research work as well. Study of micro-meteorites found in marginal marine sediments was also explained by her.

I concluded the talk with details of Indian Antarctic programme and the procedure to participate in it through the student participation scheme of National Centre for Antarctic & Ocean Research (ESSO-NCAOR), an Earth System Science Organisation under the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) - Government of India. Career opportunities in polar geosciences and the various information portals like APECS Jobs portal were also highlighted for students interested in polar research. The talk was attended by about 80 students along with the faculties of the University of Delhi. The feedback by the young students was highly encouraging and we plan to organise similar kind of event regarding Arctic sciences as well.

Shape the future of polar geosciences: Promoting polar science among young minds

Pic 1 Devsamridhi introducing her research in Antarctica copyA panel discussion titled “Shape the future of Polar Geosciences” was organised by Indian Polar Research Network (APECS-India) in association with Department of Geology, University of Delhi on 28th January 2017 on the special occasion of Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the department. The event was held to introduce polar geosciences to the undergraduate students and enhance knowledge of the postgraduate students. This panel discussion aimed at creating awareness among the students regarding the career opportunities in polar geosciences, the priorities of the polar research and their significance in the contributions to humanity.

The panel was chaired by eminent polar geologist Dr. Anil Joshi along with, Dr. Siddharth Swaroop(Himalayan glaciologist) and Mr. H. C. Khanduri(Himalayan projects expert). Dr. Anil Joshi, now retired, served as the Deputy Director General of Polar Division, Geological Survey of India. He participated in the initial years of Indian Antarctic Expeditions in 80s and led geological research in Antarctica later. Dr. Siddharth Swaroop, a celebrated glaciologist, has retired as the Deputy Director General of Glaciology Division, Geological Survey of India after working extensively in Himalayan glaciers for decades. Mr. H. C. Khanduri is a greatly admired engineering geologist associated with colossal Himalayan projects like Tehri Dam project and has a comprehensive experience of about 30 years in geotechnical research in Indian region of Himalayas.

Pic 2 Dr. Anil Joshi sharing his experiences copyThe event was initiated with the introduction of APECS and IPRN by Prof. N. C. Pant followed by presentations by research scholars of the department who are working in the Polar Regions. I introduced Antarctica and Arctic to the audience with a glimpse into my research in Antarctica. Abul Aamir Khan, also an IPRN member, introduced Himalaya and its importance as the third pole and conferred a talk on his research at Gangotri glacier, Himalaya. This was followed by a talk by Debojyoti Basuroy who focused on the adventures and eccentricity of working in Polar Regions by sharing his lively experiences of working in high altitude Himalayas and his research study on the Sutlej river reorganisation.

A special session on Geosciences in Himalayas was organized with a view to promote Himalayas as a third Pole and to highlight the fragility of the Himalayan social-ecological system. The Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, known as the third pole, stores more snow and ice than anywhere else in the world outside the Polar Regions and forms a daunting global ecological buffer. The third pole region is sensitive to climate change and directly or indirectly affects millions of people (about one fifth of the world's population). The session highlighted some recent studies suggesting a greater vulnerability of the cryospheric environment to rapid warming and climate change. However, there are many unanswered questions and their potential implications which indeed, should be the priorities of the future research work focused in Himalayas.

Pic 3 copyThe panel discussion was attended by about 100 students along with the distinguished alumni and the faculty of the department. The panel discussion was followed by an open forum Polar Quiz for the students. This was the very first time when students of department of geology, Delhi University were introduced to polar geosciences at a broad platform. This event provided them an opportunity to hear and interact with renowned polar scientists as well as early career polar researchers and get to learn about their personal experiences of working in extreme and pristine polar conditions. The response of the students was overwhelming with requests to add few more topics in our next events. Students expressed their desire to know about ways to get involved in polar studies and participate in Indian expeditions to poles. They requested to emphasize more on the various interdisciplinary research programs in Polar Sciences. Overall, this event was highly appreciated by the audience and was a successful icebreaker activity to plan up future APECS's events in University of Delhi.

ICECAPS Workshop 2016: highlighting the role of communication for a successful science career

rsessionIndian Polar Research Network (APECS-India) collaborated with Wildlife Institute of India-ENVIS centre on Wildlife & Protected Areas to celebrate the Antarctica Day by hosting ICECAPS 2016 (Improving Communication Effectiveness and Capacity Addition in Polar Science), a science communication workshop for early career researchers and graduate students. The workshop was attended by about 50 masters and PhD students from biology, geology, and environmental science disciplines. The theme of the workshop was providing orientation to the young minds towards a successful career in Polar Science and to equip them with key communication skills. Sessions on Climate change and Protected Area network in Himalayas, Trans-boundary biodiversity conservation and Antarctic treaty system with a focus on Madrid protocol were conducted to utilize this platform for outreach activities. These sessions also underlined the challenges faced by biodiversity conservation efforts in the Polar Regions and the need for sustained scientific data collection and publishing in achieving these goals.

First day into the workshop, the participants were introduced to the importance of communication in the day to day life of a researcher. The participants were given tips on writing emails to a potential research supervisor or an adviser, creating professional resumes and developing networking skills during professional gatherings. Participants were also exposed to effective presentation skills that would help them in getting noticed in a science conference. Interactive hands-on sessions on identifying appropriate funding agency, grant writing process and the process of developing a research proposal were conducted. Lastly, the participants were introduced to the document preparation system Latex for creating large documents with basic hands-on practice.

Amit talks about Himalayan plants on thennature trail icecapsDay two of the workshop was initiated with a field session on the plants of the Himalayan foothill campus of Wildlife Institute of India. Participants were taken around the nature trail to learn about the adaptive features of the plants and were also brought in close encounter with migratory and resident species of the campus. Later, an exhaustive session on the open source software R was conducted to initiate them into the world of ecological analysis. This session familiarized participants with basic working and simple statistical analyses with R. In the end, students were taught the concepts of effective sampling design, choosing variables in a study, determining the sample sizes, and experimental vs. mensurative approach.

Sixty percent of the applicants of the workshop were M.Sc. students, 27.5 % were PhD students while the rest were early career researchers with less than 5 years to complete their PhDs. Around 60% of the students were already working in the Polar Regions and the rest intending to do so in their future career. The toughest job in this workshop, with students from different disciplines and academic backgrounds, was to invoke the interest of participants to communicate. We played Polar Bingo in the beginning of the workshop to break the ice between the students and generate an interest in the workshop topics. Our team of resource persons also interacted continuously with them between the sessions. Feedback from the participants was encouraging as almost 93% termed it “very useful” for their research career. Participants responded to include popular science writing in the future workshops while giving A-rating to sessions on R program, Grant writing and improving presentation skills.


Academics, Research and Jobs in the North: Perspectives from Early-Career Scientists

Polar Week YukonFor International Polar Week in the Yukon Territory, APECS Canada collaborated with Skookum Jim Friendship Centre to host ‘Academics, Research and Jobs in the North: Perspectives from Early-Career Scientists’. We had a panel of four northern early-career researchers who spoke at two events, one at Yukon College and one at Skookum Jim Friendship Centre, to a broad audience of students, teachers and interested members of the public on what it is like to work in science-related careers in Canada’s North. Many interesting points and perspectives came up, so as one of the organizers and panellists I will try to share and write up highlights from the panel discussion.

First off, there is a wide variety in the kinds of science-related jobs one can pursue in the North. One of our panellists, Stefan Gronsdahl, is a consultant for a environmental consulting firm. He spends approximately 20% of his time in the field and 80% in the office. In the field he works at contaminated sites and conducts spill response including sampling, monitoring, and supervising contractors, and in the office he spends a lot of time wrangling with data in excel and writing reports. Another panellist, Frank Annau, does similar work but from a regulation, investigation and compliance perspective with the Yukon Government. Jocelyn Joe-Strack is a sole-proprieter contractor and her job is science-related but mostly involves talking to people and gathering perspectives on what the best option for the people of the Yukon is. Lastly, I am a graduate student and contract researcher and I spend the summers doing field work and the winters writing. In summary, science-related jobs in the Yukon vary in size of office (many small offices), amount of field vs. office time, amount of consultation on multi-stakeholder issues, and much more.

There are different education and job options to pursuing science jobs and we are very lucky in the Yukon to have the opportunities we do. Experiential Science 11, Yukon Youth Conservation Corps, STEP and Gradcorps jobs were all mentioned by the panellists who grew up in the Yukon. These are exceptional programs to obtain experience as a Yukon youth. The level of education required differs for jobs, for example a diploma or degree is good for consulting techs and biologists, whereas a masters or phd may be required for government or NGO research in some cases. An additional consideration during education is whether a professional designation is important for the job you would like (i.e. RPBio, RPAg, RPGeo). Your education can be tailored to help you obtain this if so.

The career sectors these education and early-career job opportunities can lead to include university research, the private sector especially environmental consulting, government and NGO’s. A key point is to network and ask lots of questions to the people in the jobs you are considering, to build perspectives and insights into those careers. It is also important to apply to jobs even if they seem out of reach, and to work diligently to customize your application to the job and sector you are applying for. For example, in the private sector it is important to have a short 1-2 page punchy cv, whereas in government it is more important to hit all the points on the job description in your cv so lengthier is ok.

A main point regarding the application process in all sectors is to go in person to meet your potential employer and express interest and positive energy. Being persistent and not waiting for a job advertisement to come out, instead introducing yourself, making calls and visiting with your resumé in hand is how opportunities and positions have come about. An alternative way of viewing science-related jobs is to create your own. If you see a need or a niche where your skills and expertise could be utilized, there are opportunities to create your own employment by filling these needs. For academics, it is important to find a lab and a supervisor that you will work well with. This involves looking at their lab web pages and looking for evidence that there will be mentorship and support within that community, for example friendly group or field work photos. Other important research includes asking former or current students about their experience, verifying if the type of research aligns with your interests, and considering whether the place (or places) where you’d be living/researching are where you would like to live for a few years.

If you are interested in a particular subject or issue, there is space to specialize, whether it means pursuing a company that specializes in your interest, or courting a particular branch of government, or creating your own research program. As we build our scientific capacity, with both locals and newcomers, the North is a dynamic and rewarding place to pursue science-related careers.

Meagan Grabowski is a Yukoner and northern research, MSc Student with the UBC Department of Zoology, Jane Glassco Northern Fellow (2015-17), and APECS Canada Board Member.

Introducing the UKPN Social Science blog!

The UK Polar Network has a new blog which will feature essays and articles from the UK branch of APECS. For its inaugural post, Mika Laiho discusses 'Polar Social Science' and implications for the broader research community.

Mika Laiho is a former postgraduate student at the European Institute (LSE) and Arctic Centre (University of Lapland). Now political geography researcher at Durham University, Mika's ambition is to critique EU governance through a post-structural deconstruction of carbon (extraction and combustion) geographies of Arctic space. In his free time he acts as an advocate of Polar Social Science through UKPN and APECS (which are both organisations created and run voluntarily by early career scientists from around the world).

On travelling to the Earth’s largest ice sheet to look for its tiniest creatures

In addition to highlighting outreach efforts by polar researchers, this blog is also a place to highlight polar research projects by APECS members; written in a way that is compelling and accessible for a broad audience. Below is our first entry of this type, written by Trista Vick-Majors of Montana State University.


"Water, water everywhere. Nor any drop to drink." – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

This classical description of the ocean could also be applied to Antarctica. If you were standing on the vast white Antarctic ice sheet, you would be surrounded by water. In fact, frozen water would likely be all that you could see, unless you were lucky enough to glimpse the tips of the Transantarctic Mountains, which divide Antarctica into East and West. Seventy percent of Earth's fresh water is stored, frozen, in Antarctica's ice sheets. What you could not see, however, would be the estimated 100 cubic kilometers (tens of trillions of gallons) of liquid water that are locked beneath Antarctica's ice, between it and the land of the Antarctic continent. The discovery of this water is relatively new. The first tantalizing verifiable hint of its existence, its scale and its potential role as a habitat, came with the final confirmation of the existence of Subglacial Lake Vostok in 1993. Vostok is the 16th largest lake on earth by area, and up to 1000 meters deep. During the following 20 years, nearly 400 other subglacial lakes were discovered under the Antarctic ice sheet.

The idea that liquid water existed beneath the ice was a major expansion in our understanding of the scale of Antarctic habitats. Before the discovery of the lakes, the interior of the continent was thought to be mostly inhospitable to life, save a few intrepid microbes making a living in the snow, or perhaps inside of the rocks where mountain ranges peeked out above the top of the ice sheet. Most of the action was in the Southern Ocean, which surrounds the continent, and in the lakes and streams of the handful of ice-free oases that dot its coast. Looking for life in a lake under the ice sheet (which can be up to ~4000 meters thick) was a step beyond looking for it in ice-covered lakes of the oases, where at only a few meters thick, the ice was thin enough for sunlight to penetrate to fuel the lakes' ecosystems.

As a student working on my M.Sc., I traveled to one of those ice-free oases, the McMurdo Dry Valleys, three times to study how heterotrophic bacteria, who depend on organic carbon produced by other organisms as food, responded to the setting of the sun. Sunset happens only once a year in the Antarctic, as the sun falls below the horizon in the fall, and rises again in the spring. The winter is total darkness. Without sunlight, phytoplankton (the plants of the McMurdo Dry Valley lakes) can't photosynthesize. I found that without them, the heterotrophs that depend on the phytoplankton as primary producers of carbon (food) essentially go on a winter diet. They shift their metabolisms from the active growth of summer, to maintenance mode until the sun rises. I wondered if there were heterotrophs in subglacial lakes that, in permanent darkness, lived in an almost permanent maintenance state.

In 2012, I got my chance to test that hypothesis. Now a Ph.D student, I am writing my dissertation on Subglacial Lake Whilllans (SLW). SLW is a small subglacial lake in West Antarctica, near the coast. It lies under about 800 meters of ice, is about two meters deep, and covers about 60 square kilometers. It is also part of a continuum of what are known as "active" subglacial lakes. Approximately once per decade, SLW drains downstream into the Southern Ocean. Neighboring lakes upstream drain into SLW, refilling it, and the cycle continues. Knowing that these systems impact the ocean, it is important to understand what exactly spills out of them when these lakes drain – nutrients? Microbes?

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Tents at Subglacial Lake Whillans (Photo: Trista Vick-Majors).


Before 2012, no one had ever retrieved a water sample from a subglacial lake. Doing so is not simple; it requires an array of techniques aimed at protecting these pristine environments from contamination. The team that I am part of enlisted the help of a hot water drilling team, who used a massive hot water drill to melt a hole through the 800 meters of ice above SLW. The drill used pressurized hot water instead of a drill bit and was equipped with filtration systems to remove microorganisms and particles from the drill water and with UV lights to damage or kill any that remained. It worked – we were able to retrieve clean samples from the lake! We camped out on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and had 96 hours to take samples from the lake and run experiments to look for and learn about the microbial life in SLW. Getting there wasn't easy, but more about that in my podcast.

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Trista collecting snow to cool incubations at Subglacial Lake Whillans (Photo: JT Thomas).


As a microbiologist and an ecologist, I wanted to know not only how the microorganisms that we found in SLW survived there, but also what their survival meant for the ecosystem. To answer those questions, I incubated samples of lake water with radioactively-labeled food sources (nucleotides and amino acids). By comparing the rates at which the microorganisms incorporated nucleotides (into DNA) and amino acids (into proteins), I could start to understand how they survived: were they thriving, or just maintaining like the Dry Valley lake heterotrophs during the winter? If they were thriving, they should be making about as much DNA as protein, because DNA production in a microorganism usually happens when a cell is going to divide. If lots of cells are dividing, then the population is growing. But, if the microorganisms are just in maintenance mode, they should be making more protein than DNA – not focused on growing their population, but rather just making enough cellular machinery to get by during tough times.

It turned out that the microorganisms in SLW incorporated about three times as much of the radioactively labeled substrate into protein as into DNA, which implies that they were actually doing at least as well as the microorganisms in the Dry Valley lakes and as those in the Southern Ocean, in spite of the fact that they are growing very slowly. Beneath 800 meters of ice, at half a degree below zero Celsius, not only was there life in SLW, but it was growing, not just surviving.

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A scanning electron microscope of a microbial scale from Subglacial Lake Whillans (round, center) next to a sediment particle (Image by Trista Vick-Majors at the Montana State University ICAL facility). 


Maybe the next stop will be to travel not to the largest mass of ice on Earth, but to a large mass of ice on one of Jupiter's moons to find the tiniest creatures beneath its frozen seas.


Trista Vick-Majors is a Ph.D candidate in Microbial Ecology at Montana State University. She has spent five field seasons in the Antarctic, studying microbes in lakes and the ocean beneath ice shelves and trying to understand their survival strategies and contributions to the carbon and nitrogen cycles.

Inspiring Young Minds to Pursue STEM Careers

When I was in 6th grade, I distinctly remember measuring rainfall in a homemade rain gauge hanging from a tree outside of my mom's house. Although I was always interested in science and nature, I wasn't taking rainfall measurements for fun; I was working on my science fair project. Obviously it wasn't the outcome of the competition that was important to me, because I can't remember how I ranked relative to my peers, it was the execution and presentation of the project that really stand-out in my mind. In fact, this science fair project may have unconsciously inspired me to attend my undergraduate alma mater, Lehigh University, because I still remember the trip to Lehigh's campus to present my project and tour the science and engineering facilities on campus. A colleague and friend of mine also recently shared that the Science Olympiad inspired him to work hard in high school and pursue a college degree!

I was recently invited to judge a science fair organized by a friend of mine who teaches 8th-grade at a local school. Of course I was excited to give her a hand, not only as a scientist interested in seeing what today's youth can think-up for science fair projects, but as a former science fair participant looking to give back to an activity that left strong impression in my mind. The students were tasked with designing their own experiment, collecting data, making charts and graphs to display their results, and thinking of sources of error and ways to improve their projects if they could be repeated. I was really impressed with the creativity of some of the projects, which ranged from determining which type of dance requires the most energy (and is therefore best for exercise) to quantifying saturation times for flowers sitting in dyed water. Some of the kids were obviously very nervous but everyone gave great presentations and hopefully had a great learning experience.

I was really pleased that my friend also asked the science fair judges to talk about our jobs so that her students would have an idea of potential STEM careers. Although I live in an area that was carved by an ice sheet during the last ice age, many of my friend's students didn't know how glaciers form or how they influence the landscape. I showed a number of pictures and videos from my fieldwork all over the world to really give them an idea of what glacier look like, where they are currently located, and how they are studied. When I received thank-you letters in the mail from the students, I found-out that most of the kids had no idea that you could study glaciers as a college professor or even that college professors got to conduct scientific research. Overall, based on this experience, I strongly encourage other academics to take every opportunity to get involved with local teachers; you may spark someone's interest in developing a science project, motivate them to attend college, or even pursue a STEM career!


helo work2

Ellyn Enderlin is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Maine. Her research interests include glaciers, ice sheets, icebergs, and ice-ocean interactions. The photo shows Ellyn working with Gordon Hamilton, also faculty at the University of Maine, to collect GPS measurements from a helicopter in Antarctica in October 2014.

Seal Team 6

As a graduate student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I am part of a six-person science team that studies reproduction and molt in Weddell seals. Having already spent almost two seasons at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, I appreciate the surreal nature of living in one of the world's most extreme environments, and realize that the experience is something most people can only dream of. With this in mind, I feel very strongly that our research should be integrated with education to the largest extent possible. When our field team arrived back in Alaska following our very first season on "the ice", a fellow graduate student, Amy Kirkham, and I collaborated with a PolarTREC teacher to develop a Weddell seal-themed outreach program for Anchorage School District K-12 students. We created a life-size, stuffed Weddell seal we affectionately named 'Patches,' and used it as a demonstration tool to show students how we collect morphometric data while in the field. We had the students conduct an activity in which the measure the seal's length and girth in order to estimate volume. The activity was meant to bring real techniques that we use in Antarctica into the classroom, giving students an idea of what their futures could look like if they became biologists. Patches traveled with us from classroom to classroom, receiving a fabric patch with each visit that displayed the name of each student that we interacted with – over 1200 students in one year. In the next few years, we plan to build on our hugely successful outreach program by visiting additional K-12 students in the Anchorage School District and in other parts of Alaska.

Photo: Roxanne, Amy and "Patches" (photographer: Rachel Lee)

Roxanne Amy Patches

Reddit AMA Polar Week Activity

As part of International Polar Week 2015, members of US APECS organized and held an AMA (Ask Me Anything!) live question and answer session on Reddit in the sub-Reddit r/iama ( The live session was held on 28 March, from 20:30 until approximately 22:00 Eastern Time. This was US APECS's first attempt at holding a live Q&A forum online. Participants for this AMA included Chelsea Thompson, who specializes in Arctic atmospheric chemistry and air-snow interactions; Jeff Bowman, who specializes in polar microbiology; and Alex Thornton, who specializes in Antarctic ecology and marine birds and mammals. Overall the AMA was a success and a very positive experience. We received a variety of questions, many of which were about our experiences working in the Polar Regions, what it is like to be a polar researcher, and how we got into this field of research. Penguins were also a very popular topic of discussion. We only received one silly question, but no rude questions or comments and overall everyone was respectful and genuinely interested in our research and experiences. Several of the people that we had exchanges with said they had students or younger family members who would be very excited to learn about polar research and one teacher expressed an interest in trying to incorporate this area of science into her class. From this first experience, this forum appears to be a good method for outreach to a potentially very large and diverse audience who otherwise would likely not be exposed to our fields of research. This activity was arranged on relatively short-notice so that we would coincide with Polar Week, but in a future AMA, we would like to involve even more researchers and schedule enough time in advance to better promote the session to get more public involvement.

Communicating conservation research to a young audience

Science has always been a fundamental subject taught in every curriculum beginning from an early age. It never ceases to amaze me, however, how much of an understanding of ecology and the environment these students seem to grasp at a much younger age than I can recall. Since environmental issues like climate change have been at the forefront of various media outlets, it is no surprise that students are being taught the basics of climate change, its effects, and where these impacts are most detrimental. Engaging in youth outreach with respect to environmental issues, and specifically the effects of climate change, must extend somewhat beyond these basics therefore, to help engage a younger audience and encourage them to always continue to ask questions.

As a PhD researcher focusing on polar bear diet and body condition in the Canadian Arctic, my research goes hand in hand with the potential negative effects of climate change. I have had the opportunity to write numerous blog entries for Earth Rangers - an organization that promotes environmental research and conservation while engaging and educating a young audience. Volunteering with Earth Rangers has allowed me step out of the mindset that I am most frequently in, which involves scientific journal writing in which the audience usually consists of experts in the field. Now, my goal was to write about my research in a way that not only children could easily follow, but also gradually introduce them to more complex topics that extend beyond the general facts about polar bears and climate change that they had previously learned. 


My blog entries usually begin by describing a little bit about the fieldwork that we do to collect our data in Churchill, Manitoba. By painting a very vivid picture about our surroundings (the environment, climate), the type of information we are collecting (fat samples from the bears, morphometric measures) and how (tools used, helicopters to locate the bears), children can imagine these scenarios which can better help them to understand the actual reasons why we are doing this type of research. Following this, I then begin to discuss the actual questions we are asking and address how the collection of various samples from polar bears in the field can help answer these questions. Firstly, we are looking at polar bear diet over a broad time scale (twenty years) in a specific area (Churchill, Manitoba - the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation of polar bears). We use a small fat sample from the rump of each bear and are able to determine both diet (type of prey they are eating) and body condition (how much fat is in the sample which reflects the amount of fat in the bear). The actual details of the diet analysis are usually much more complex than I can provide in a blog for elementary school students, so instead of being bogged down by the scientific jargon I discuss the potential for polar bear diet to change due to melting sea ice which could affect how successful they are at hunting their seal prey. 

By writing for a younger audience, I have realized that keeping the information provided at the most basic level is not always wise. Elementary school students are learning so much more about our environment than in the past, and providing them with simple definitions will likely not keep them engaged. It is important firstly to know the age range of students you would be writing for and from there assume that basic definitions have usually already been covered in a classroom setting. We can then begin to discuss more complex topics that build on this previous knowledge, thereby allowing students to open their minds further to environmental and conservation based research and fully begin to understand how interconnected we truly are to our surroundings.

Luana Sciullo is a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto, Canada under the direction of Dr. Gregory Thiemann. Her research focuses on polar bear body condition in the Western Hudson Bay region and she is frequently involved in outreach activities.

Photo credit- Polar bear cubs, L. Sciullo 

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