To the Ends of the Earth

Antarctica is among the best places in the world to see the effects of climate change in action. Meet four women of the CSU whose work is taking them here on an urgent quest to find solutions.


  • newswise-fullscreen To the Ends of the Earth

    Credit: Photo courtesy of Billy Collins

    Kathy Kasic, Sacramento State

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    Credit: Photo courtesy of Billy Collins

    The SALSA hot water drill and borehole extend 3,500 feet down into the Antarctic Subglacial Lake Mercer. A high-powered UV light collar surrounds the hole to kill any microbes on science instruments that could contaminate the lake. Subglacial lakes are permanently cold and dark environments that could add to our understanding of the evolution of life in these extreme environments on Earth and other planets.

  • newswise-fullscreen To the Ends of the Earth

    Credit: Photo courtesy of Billy Collins

    SALSA researchers camped in tents on the ice, which often became drifted over with snow during high winds. The sun shines through the night during Antarctica's summer, so the tents actually stayed warm, says Kathy Kasic.

  • newswise-fullscreen To the Ends of the Earth

    Credit: Photo courtesy of Greg Marshall

    Dr. Gitte McDonald, CSU Moss Landing Marine Laboratories

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    Credit: Photo courtesy of P. Ponganis

    Dr. Birgitte McDonald observes an emperor penguin during an Antarctic expedition in 2010.

  • newswise-fullscreen To the Ends of the Earth

    Credit: Photo courtesy of Melania Guerra

    Dr. Kerry Nickols, CSU Northridge

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    Credit: Photo courtesy of Sofia Oiseth

    While Dr. Kerry Nickols has long worked to mitigate climate change, the Homeward Bound experience reinvigorated her resolve. “It felt like we were really trying to make change tangible. I feel more connected to the future of the planet and more empowered to make a difference," Nickols says, adding that she now has a bigger support network and a better understanding of the global scale of both environmental problems and solutions.

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    Credit: Image taken under NMFS permit #21006

    Seal pups

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    Dr. Heather Liwanag and her team monitored and named their first group of seal pups during the fall 2017 expedition. Working with each pup week after week, the scientists got to know their unique personalities.

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    Tracking down seal pups for sampling can be complicated. In 2017, graduate student researcher Emma Weitzner blogged about a case of mistaken seal pup identity on the project's website.

Newswise — Men have explored Antarctica in the name of science since the early 1900s, but it wasn't until 1955 that the first woman scientist set foot on Earth's most remote continent. In celebration of Women's History Month, we take a look at four remarkable women at the CSU currently making an impact with their work in Antarctica.

 

BENEATH THE ICE 

Kathy Kasic | Sacramento State

"The feeling of discovering a lake together created a tight camaraderie that will stay with us for the rest of our lives."

— Kathy Kasic, Sacramento State film professor, of the expedition to explore a subglacial lake

Thousands of feet below the ice sheet of western Antarctica sits a lake that probably hasn't seen the light of day for over 100,000 years. But in January 2019, scientists from the Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA) project were able to access water and sediment samples from the ancient Subglacial Lake Mercer to explore its hidden ecosystem. 

Antarctica is home to a network of subglacial lakes and the SALSA project is only the second time researchers could use clean drilling techniques to obtain samples. (The first was the 2009-14 WISSARD project.)

Kathy Kasic, a Sacramento State film professor and cinematographer, was there to document this remarkable feat. In late January, Kasic returned from the six-week expedition and began work on a documentary that will tell the story of SALSA's successful exploration 4,000 feet beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.

The National Science Foundation-funded project included a team of 50 researchers and support staff who used hot water ice-drilling techniques to retrieve samples for further study. Scientists hope to learn what kinds of organisms once lived in the lake, the movement of water beneath the ice and how ice sheet dynamics will affect global sea level rise.

Kasic, one of 11 principal investigators (PIs) from eight U.S. institutions and one of only two female PIs, found the experience transformative: “The feeling of discovering a lake together, thousands of feet beneath the surface of the ice, reaching into the darkness to shine light on the hidden secrets of our planet, created a tight camaraderie that will stay with us for the rest of our lives," says Kasic, a former biologist, of the trip. 

Kasic's hour-long PBS documentary about the expedition will air sometime in 2020.  Starting in October 2019, the SALSA website will show Kasic's two shorter films about the expedition, and PBS Learning Media will host educational materials created by Kasic.

 

THE PERSISTENCE OF THE EMPEROR PENGUIN

Dr. Gitte McDonald | CSU Moss Landing Marine Laboratories

"Our research on the ecology and physiology of Antarctic predators such as penguins helps us predict how these animals will respond to a changing climate."

— Dr. Gitte McDonald, professor, CSU Moss Landing Marine Laboratories

When Birgitte (Gitte) McDonald, Ph.D. heads to Antarctica in October 2019, it will mark her 12th time to the coldest continent. She has studied seals, sea lions and birds; her upcoming expedition will focus on the feeding habits of the emperor penguin. Dr. McDonald is an assistant professor of vertebrate ecology at the CSU's Moss Landing Marine Labs, a research consortium supported by seven CSU campuses, with San José State​ as the administrative campus. She and graduate student Parker Forman will join a collaborative field expedition funded by National Geographic and others to the western Ross Sea, the world's largest marine preserve.​

“This study fills important knowledge gaps on [caloric intake], diet, foraging strategy and habitat use of emperor penguins during a critical time," explains McDonald, who received her master's from Sonoma State. “By studying animals in extreme environments we can learn more about their physiological limits." 

Knowing how animals survive in the Antarctic helps scientists predict, and possibly mitigate, how they're affected by climate change.  

At the Vertebrate Ecology Lab, McDonald serves as primary mentor to eight students, including six women. Her goal is to give students experience with a wide range of field and lab work, analysis and communication, all of which they get to practice when sharing their work at lab meetings and professional conferences.

In summer 2019, Dr. McDonald will begin blogging about her upcoming expedition on the Moss Landing Marine Labs' site .

 

ICE-BREAKING LEADERSHIP

Dr. Kerry Nickols | CSU Northridge

"Being down there and connecting with nature and being inspired by other women, I learned how to be optimistic. We have to solve climate change because there’s no other option."

— Dr. Kerry Nickols, CSU Northridge biology professor, of Homeward Bound women’s leadership expedition

On January 24, 2019, Kerry Nickols, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at CSU Northridge, flew back to Los Angeles after a 20-day journey to Antarctica aboard the ship MV UshuaiaDr. Nickols was part of Homeward Bound, an all-women leadership program that included 80 women from 27 countries in various STEM fields.

Nickols, whose research focuses on marine-protected areas and how they're affected by climate change, found the expedition eye-opening. Sadly, Antarctica is one place where it's easy to see climate change at work. One powerful example for Nickols was witnessing thousands of Adélie penguins, a species threatened by climate change, nesting on Paulette Island. Other populations of these birds have been pushed out of their habitats further south due to changing sea ice conditions that affect their nesting grounds.

“Being down there and connecting with nature and being inspired by other women…I learned how to be optimistic," says Nickols. “We have to solve climate change because there's no other option."

Back at CSUN, the leadership training she received has made the biologist think more about the ways she mentors and communicates with her students. “I want to be the most constructive and effective leader I can be," she says, adding that Homeward Bound helped reinvigorate her passion for conducting science that serves a greater purpose—a commitment she shares with her students.

“Many of us [in Homeward Bound] felt like we were blown open. It's hard not to feel that way when you're in Antarctica. It's just such a compelling place to be. It's hard not to feel like you want to do something more when you're there."

 

LEARNING HOW SEAL PUPS SURVIVE

Dr. Heather Liwanag | Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

"My research experience in Antarctica taught me so many things… You can learn a lot about yourself when you are working crazy long, hard days."

— Emma Weitzner, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo graduate student, of baby Weddell seal research

Heather Liwanag, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, spends a lot of her time in Antarctica with adorable baby Weddell seals, but she's not there to play. The research she and her team are doing should tell us more about how these young seals grow into champion divers, even in such extreme conditions.

“These animals are an important piece of the Antarctic ecosystem, which is the last near-pristine ecosystem on Earth. Understanding their development will help us to get a better understanding of polar seals in general, all of which are threatened by climate change,"says Dr. Liwanag. 

The transition from pup to adult is the most critical time for the animals' survival, and Liwanag wants to find out how these pups stay warm and develop their ability to dive.

In 2017, Liwanag and her team, which included Cal Poly graduate student Emma Weitzner, spent 10 weeks observing pups at McMurdo Station, the largest research station in Antarctica. Liwanag will return for more pup research later in 2019.

Weitzner, who hopes to earn her master's in spring 2019, plans to pursue a Ph.D. in comparative physiology. “My research experience in Antarctica taught me so many things, from how to work well in a small team in harsh conditions to how to draw blood from a seal and even how to change the spark plugs in a snowmobile! You can learn a lot about yourself when you are working crazy long, hard days."

Liwanag's advice for women interested in pursuing science? “Keep pushing forward. Take every opportunity you can, even if it's not exactly what you think you want to do. In science, being passionate and excited about asking questions and learning new things is what keeps you going, even when times are tough." 

Visit Growing Up On Ice , the project's website, to learn more and see more adorable baby seal photographs. 

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