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Girl Scout joins scientists on the ice

"I have arrived at the place that will be my home until January," wrote Hannah Thomas, the fifth Girl Scout sponsored to visit Antarctica, in her online journal on 20 October 1997. "Antarctica! I can't get used to it.... The lack of color and the crispness of the environment may make Antarctica seem very harsh, but Antarctica's beauty is incredible and so pure. There are no trees to soften the outline of a mountain range and no flowers on the ground to distract the eye from the clear blue of the sky. Everything is simple and rugged-and that is the beauty of this land."

Hannah, a 14-year veteran of Girl Scouts, is the 1997 scholarship recipient of the Antarctic Research Project, cosponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. Selected from a group of 55 applicants, all 18 to 20 years old, Hannah took a semester off from her studies at Mount Holyoke College and left her home in New York State, to travel to Antarctica and assist with scientific research there. Hannah is no stranger to science. By majoring in geology and minoring in biology, she is following family tradition: both her parents and her older sister are geologists. Although as a child, Hannah swore she would never follow the same path-especially after years of what she and her sister called the "geology tourism" of their family vacations-she fell in love with geology during her first freshman course in the subject and knew it was the field for her. "Because geology is the science of the Earth, and all life and life interactions are centered around our planet," she writes, "geology is the basis of all science." She adds, "Maybe, though, I'm just a bit biased."

Hannah's love for science is linked to her desire for discovery. "Science helps me understand the world in which I live," she writes in her online journal, "and my impact upon it. Because I love the mysteries of nature, I love the tools science provides me with to understand them."

To earn one of her many awards as a Girl Scout, Hannah has taught Brownies, the youngest scouts, about science, in part by sharing what she learned when she worked for two summers during high school as an intern doing field research on bees and wasps at Skidmore College. She is eager to teach younger scouts that people who fall in love with science and become scientists are not necessarily people for whom science and math have always come easy. "I often struggled with the mathematics in my science classes," she reports, "a struggle that began in elementary school." When her performance on a standardized math test threatened to hold her back a grade in mathematics, her fifth grade teacher spotted "math phobia" in Hannah's approach to numbers and, by tutoring her during the summer and after school, was able to teach her to break numbers and number problems into what Hannah calls "small, friendly units." Now, instead of freezing when she encounters numbers on an exam, she can deal with the smaller units one at a time and succeed.

NSF's goal for the Antarctic Research Project is to increase the visibility of science and the U.S. Antarctic Program in both the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts, who have a similar program. Through the project, NSF hopes to give exceptional scouts, during a formative stage in their careers, an opportunity to work with scientists in the field. Hannah shares NSF's goal of wanting to spotlight science and spark interest in it. "One of my career goals," she wrote in her application for the project, "is not only to be involved in science but to present science in a way that is accessible and understandable to the general public, through the spoken and written word." She felt that her participation in the Antarctic Research Project would give her a unique opportunity to be involved in research, and she vowed to find ways to share what she learns with others. Through her online journal, she is doing just that.