Graduate Student Life in Antarctica

Brenda Hall, graduate student at the University of Maine, is studying the glacial geology of the dry valley region near McMurdo Station.

Working in Antarctica, one notices the youth of the population. A good example is Brenda Hall, a graduate student with Dr. George Denton at the University of Maine. Brenda was an undergraduate at Bates College, a small liberal arts college in Lewiston, Maine. She was the recipient of a Dave Research Apprenticeship and gained her first taste of polar research in the Canadian Arctic studying paleoclimates through lake sediments.

Brenda has now spent six austral summers in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, pursuing her Ph.D. Each season requires an intensive 6-months period of preparation and planning. Environmental assessments must be developed to address issues such as waste handling and the return of cargo. Transportation, food, supplies, and equipment have to be coordinated with various support organizations. She and two colleagues must be safe and self-sufficient for long periods when storms and bad weather prevent close support.

Field seasons consist of up to 100 days of tent life from November to February and require extremely hard labor, with virtually no recreation or privacy. Working days of up to 18 hours consist of mapping surface deposits and collecting samples for dating and sediment analysis. Daily life includes chores such as food preparation. No showers and minimal fresh clothing and personal effects make for a long season. Lack of contact with family, friends, and loved ones becomes especially poignant during the holiday season.

For her Ph.D. research, Brenda has been studying the last glaciation in Antarctica and its relationship to abrupt global climate changes and to the stability of the marine-based West Antarctica Ice Sheet. The primary part of the project is to map the extent of the Ross Sea Ice Sheet, a large grounded ice sheet that existed in the Ross Sea during the last global glaciation and was fed, in part, by the West Antarctic ice sheet.

Results are not yet final, but promise to provide exciting new information on Antarctic paleoclimate, lake-level variations, deglaciation of the Ross Sea, and the stability of the West Antarctic ice sheet; her work may address the fundamental problems of the cause of ice ages.

Working in Antarctica has been a tremendous experience for Brenda. Graduate students rarely receive opportunities to work on projects with such relevance to the "hot" topics in the field, particularly with outstanding logistical support. In addition, she enjoys the responsibility and challenges associated with managing a field camp and carrying out scientific research in such an isolated location. Such experience and responsibility at an early age lay the groundwork for future leadership and for a successful career. Every year more than 100 students do research in Antarctica or use Antarctic data in their research projects at their universities.

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