The day after Thanksgiving, I’ll be traveling to Antarctica. The trip is part of my duties as a member of the National Science Board, a 25-member group that is part of the governance structure of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and advises the President and Congress on science policy matters. NSF is a key agency in funding basic social and natural sciences, engineering, and science education activities.
One of the important units at NSF is the Division of Polar programs, which funds and oversees research both in the Arctic and Antarctica. Despite impressions that are suggested by most two dimensional map projections of the world, Antarctica is a huge continent (50% larger than North America). Indeed, one ice shelf near the continent, which is a key focus of research on the rate of melt, is the size of Spain!
The US manages three research stations on the continent, and most all the NSF research is based out of these stations. In addition, there are two research vessels for off-continent research and heavy icebreaker ships to help assure a supply of necessary provisions. Small planes and helicopters ferry researchers from the three stations to field sites to do the research. There are approximately 30 other countries that have year-round or seasonal research stations on the continent. Some estimate that there are about 4,000 people during the summer months and 1,000 over the winter months.
Doing research in the hostile environment of the Antarctic is difficult and expensive, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the US annually. Hence, one of the roles of the National Science Board is to assure that the taxpayers’ money is spent effectively, funding the most important science that the scientific community can produce. For example, a current issue is that many of the facilities were built decades ago, with concerns about the impact on continuation of key efforts. Three members of the Board will visit McMurdo station on the coast and then the South Pole station.
A special treat for a Georgetown provost going at this time is that Professor Sarah Johnson, with a PhD in planetary science from MIT, will be leading a research effort in Antarctica connected to her interest in the evolutionary course of planets and the question of life on Mars. Sarah has a joint appointment in the Science Technology and International Affairs program in the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Biology in Georgetown College. In true Georgetown fashion, on her Antarctica team will be a Georgetown undergraduate, Angela Bai, who will use the research as part of her thesis. We’re attempting to have a little Hoya gathering during the visit.
Although Professor Johnson’s research regarding Mars may seem unrelated to Antarctica, a common question for both is how life or evidence of former life can exist in extremely harsh conditions. Her research site is in the “Dry Valleys” area of the continent, far from the McMurdo station, examining whether microbial life traces can be identified. Given the geological and climatic conditions of Antarctica, it is likely that few important changes have occurred in the last one to two million years. Sarah and Angela’s time there will be spent both gathering specimens at the site a helicopter ride away and back in a McMurdo laboratory, taking some novel measurements, using real-time DNA sequencing technology, on the specimens.
It’s an honor for me to witness her research in real-time. I’ll try a post next Wednesday from Antarctica, but I’m told the Internet connection is a little dicey. I’ll do my best and forward reflections when I can.