Wild Women Working Science Aboard Polarstern

My wife of 20 years teaches at Padua Academy, a private catholic High
School for girls only. It mostly serves families where the girls will
become the first in their families to go on to college. I am thinking of
them right now, as an hour ago there was a flurry of activity on the deck
of FS Polarstern after 2 days of endless grinding and breaking ice. And it
was predominantly women of all ages who were leading, directing, and doing
science. Some even carried a gun to protect themselves against polar bears
as they went for an excursion onto an ice floe nearby.

There is Ilka P. who studies ice, plants, and tiny animals who live below
the ice. She is also the gun safety officer for the science crew. Her
research group includes Bibi Z. from Denmark and Ulrike D. from
Germany, both graduate students. All three fly helicopter to get to the
ice often, but tonight they went out on a zodiac to take their snow and
ice samples in wet-suits. Bibi’s job is to analyze the ice for the life that
uses what little light gets through snow and ice allows there to be. When not
flying helicopters, riding zodiacs, or hiking on ice floes, she usually
works in a refrigerated container far below decks in a thick parka, so she
is rarely seen.

This is very different from both Ilka P. and Ulrike D. When not guarding others from polar bears on the ice, I see Ilka often next to me in a dry lab with lots of computers, screens, winch controls etc. She analyzes small samples of melted ice for algea with a very high-tech machine that I do not fully understand, but it works much the same way that blood samples are analyzed in a crime lab. Ulrike’s work is much easier to understand as she cheerfully explained to me that she is baking microbes in something like a pressure cooker to clean the containers used to store the microbes living near the ice. She always walked past our mooring assembly line below decks and made as much
noise with her pressure cooker as I did when testing my acoustic releases. At first I believed that she was the first to jump out of the zodiac onto the ice flow to help others along, when it actually was Ilka.

Then there is Nicole H., a biologist from Germany who quietly focuses on collecting zooplankton samples with a long net that profiles the water column, vertically extracting “stuff” in 5 containers at 5 different depths. She does all this while the zodiac is made ready with people, guns, and gear moving past her. She does all this while a group of engineers and other scientists get ready for yet another bottom-landing contraption to collect sediment, water, and critter samples from the bottom of the 2500 meter deep ocean. Ms. Grumpy Pants was among them (she shall remain anonymous), but Nicole stood like a rock focused on one thing within the storm of activity that surrounded her. There is a lot of love and dedication to detail in Nicole’s focus the same way there was in the hectic excitement of Ilka, Ulrike, and Bibi. This is science at its best. It has a rythm.

If you want to have fun, independence, challenge, and a sense of adventure rather than being judged on your make-up, prom dress, or popularity in High School, then science is for you. The make-up and the boys will fade rather quickly, but the thrill of science and making discoveries will stay
with you for a long time … it will also pay a good salary, but, more importantly, then, it often provides good and exhilarating companionship. And as Mandy K., a chemistry laboratory technician proved during some friendly banter on deck yesterday: even a 20 year old stands up with good
humor to any men aboard. Strong, wild, and mostly smart women.


Post scriptum: Jonathan P. just tells me, that there actually was a polar
bear on a neighboring ice floe. The bear was carefully watched and all men and
and women returned safely back to the ship.

Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

One response to “Wild Women Working Science Aboard Polarstern

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