Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How to become a polar scientist

Are you interested in polar science? Are you curious about how polar ecosystems work and what kind of change is happening in them? Do you like going out to find the answers to your questions? Do you want to learn about and explore polar regions as a career?

When I was a kid, I didn't know I would become a field scientist in Antarctica. I wanted to be a veterinarian, because I liked animals. I didn't know that scientific research was a possible career. Once I realized that I could make a career out of studying animals outside in the natural world, I liked that idea much more! Then I realized that I could work all over the world, and my field work could happen in all sorts of places. I liked the adventure of travel, so I took an opportunity to work in Antarctica, and that's how I ended up doing what I do. I get to travel to many places around the world, ask questions about how the ecosystem works, then find out the answer to those questions. I have a pretty fun job!

Science in a penguin rookery
There are many fields of science that you can study in the Antarctic and Arctic. There are biologists and biogeochemists like me. Biologists can study invertebrates (like we do), microbes, plants, or the more charismatic animals like penguins, other birds, whales, and seals.
The Oden: icebreaker and  research vessel

There are also oceanographers who study ocean biogeochemistry and the movement of ocean water (circulation) around the polar region, which has an important role in understanding climate change.
Glaciologists study the composition and dynamics of the glaciers and ice sheets in the Antarctic and Arctic, where most of the planet's fresh water is stored. Many of them study climate change through the ice record.
Stream geochemists at work.
Geochemists study the elements found in the streams, glaciers, soil, and lakes.
Mt. Erebus
Other geologists study the rocks that make up the continent of Antarctica to understand how the continent formed, plus vulcanologists who study Mt. Erebus, the southern-most active volcano on the planet.

There are astronomers who work in Antarctica using telescopes or collecting meteorites, some even using it as a proxy for Mars. Atmospheric scientists study ozone and air quality, and physicists study subatomic particles.
Tools for LIDAR imagery
Geographers use satellite and radar imagery to map the continent. There are also engineers that run the satellites and telescopes. Historians document and preserve the 100+ years of human exploration of polar regions.

Click on any of the links in this paragraph to learn about that type of research. There are tons of things you can study in polar regions!

What do you have to do to become a polar scientist? Most polar scientists have college and graduate degrees (a masters degree and/or Ph.D.) in their particular field of science. (Or, they're students currently working towards achieving those degrees.) I went to college and earned a bachelors degree in biology, then went to graduate school to get a Ph.D. in ecology/biogeochemistry. If you want to become a polar scientist, it will involve working very hard in (and enjoying!) a lot of science classes. There are probably two basic characteristics that are true of every professional scientist: they're incredibly curious and willing to work very hard. Polar scientists also have an itch for adventure. The reward is that we get to make a career out of exploration to find answers to all of our questions!