The idea of embarking on a PhD held absolutely no appeal to me at first. I feared it wouldn’t represent who I was, or wouldn’t satisfy me.
Computer screens can’t keep me captive for long and I am liable to abandon routine in search of adventure. Being born in what I suspected was the wrong era for exploration, I’d often begrudge the absence of true adventure. Reading exotic accounts of past expeditions, I’d lament the loss of wilderness to the encroaching modern world: now littered with plastic bags, bustling bars, wifi hotspots and worse – people just like me.
When committing to a PhD in science, I thought I might be hapless slave, hunched over a microscope or chained to a desk muddling through mind-numbing calculations. Would I be destined to play up to a stereotype; to be an eccentric, hermitic boffin with a beard? (That last one would be difficult with two X chromosomes.)
The best person to challenge my misconceptions of science came in the form of my future supervisor; beard-free, charismatic, down-to-earth and yet successful. With a long-standing association with polar research she opened a door that allowed me to work in some of the last truly wild places on earth: Antarctica and the subantarctic islands.
Together we have been developing a new proxy for climate change. Our theory is that polar moss could, through its chemical signatures, contain an accurate record of centuries’ worth of climate information.
My first expedition south to find out if this is possible was to the subantarcticMacquarie Island, a tiny rock stranded in the middle of one of the stormiest areas of the Southern Ocean. It was described by early Australian geologist Captain Douglas Mawson as “the most wretched place of involuntary and slavish exilium… nothing could warrant any civilised creature living on such a spot”.
Our voyage on the icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, reinforced those sentiments. A ten-metre swell pitched our ship to extreme angles, forcing us to leave footprints on the walls in an effort to stay upright. After three days of being buffeted, I understood the necessity for belts on the bunk beds and I longed for land.
The land, when it came, was like nothing I’d ever seen. Draped in a sea fret, the steep tussock-clad cliffs converged with black-sanded beaches, covered almost entirely with wildlife. Penguins and seals jostled for space by the shoreline showing complete disregard for us, though they always had one eye fixed on the predatory birds that hovered above the hordes, anticipating a misstep.
My first night on the island was sleepless as I lay listening to belching snores – not the fault of the five men in the room I was sharing – but of elephant seals which had set up camp by my window. I couldn’t have been happier though, at last I had found my adventure.
There’s always an air of the ridiculousness when living in such small outposts – the intimate and isolated living conditions mean you can’t take things too seriously, especially yourself.
In the machinery shed there was an entire room dedicated to dressing-up costumes, but this didn’t stop people bringing their own. The image of our six-foot-five diesel mechanic dressed as Miss Piggy with custom-made pink high-heels, is a happy thought that I return to on long days in the laboratory. The island is also a great leveller of people – scientists, doctors, chefs, builders: we’re all there with a job to do and no one cares where you come from as long as you chip in and get on with it.
My second study site was on Antarctica proper and the feeling of the place was undoubtedly different. There was such stillness: the opposite to the onslaught of wildlife, weather and smells of the subantarctic – though the presence of large vehicles on the station diminished the sense of peacefully coexisting with nature somewhat. We could cross-country ski in the evenings under an ever-present sun and, on special occasions, would glide around icebergs on station boats.
While I love my PhD for the adventures it has provided, the science has ultimately proven to be just as exciting . One valuable application is a direct, fine-scale mapping of man-made climate change, made possible through something as simple and seemingly insignificant as moss.
And although there are times I am laboratory-bound, I can always look forward to abandoning my white coat, donning a red freezer suit and heading south for another season on the ice. There are still the long, hard hours and the necessary legwork once there – but it reminds me that a PhD can be at once a serious academic pursuit – and also a great adventure.