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Getting started

APECS helps early-career scientists navigate the demands of polar research


The International Polar Year 2007-2008 resulted in astounding discoveries and built new observation networks in the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet.

But perhaps one the most enduring legacies of the two-year research campaign, which officially ended in 2010, won’t be found in a journal or dataset.

However, it can be measured: More than 3,500 members and counting, representing some 75 countries, across disciplines as diverse as glaciology and engineering.

That’s the profile of APECS, the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists, an organization formed as plans for the IPY started, and one that promises to stick around for the next Polar Year celebration (already tenatively planned for 2032).

“It wasn’t a formal project as such, but became formalized through the IPY and grew into something more than anybody thought it would be,” explained Allen Pope, a PhD student in Polar Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute at University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

A former president of APECS, and currently an executive committee member and vice president, Pope seems like the prototypical early-career polar scientist: Age 25. Entered the sciences based on his love of the outdoors, particularly the glaciers he discovered while hiking through Switzerland during one summer working in a chemistry lab.

Eventually, Pope switched from the geochemistry track to remote sensing, using satellites to watch how glaciers are changing. His education taught him how to read satellite imagery and model glacier evolution as the climate changes. But then there’s the practical side of being a scientist — writing proposals, conducting fieldwork and communicating his work to both colleagues and the public.

“You’re not necessarily taught how to do these things,” he said. “That’s where APECS steps in, providing these resources so people can get the most out of conferences, rather than learning lessons the hard way — getting proposals rejected five times – get some tips and learn from other people’s experiences.

“It’s all those parts of being a scientist that aren’t taught in a formal setting,” he added.

APECS was the result of a merger of sorts between the IPY Youth Steering Committee, a group formed in 2005 that focused on engaging early-career scientists and young adults in polar outreach, and an earlier incarnation of APECS. Jenny Baeseman was among a handful of scientists around from those early days, serving as the founding director of the new APECS organization.

Baeseman said one challenge in setting up APECS was that many established scientists and principal investigators didn’t at first see a need for such an organization, arguing that their students were already receiving the necessary training.

“Many of the grad students disagreed and wanted more,” said Baeseman, who recently left her post with APECS, which maintains a one-person office in Tromsø, Norway, for a position with the World Climate Research Programme as the new director of the Climate and Cryosphere Programme.

“At the same time, a number of really outstanding senior researchers stepped up to help us form this network, not just through helpful advice in the structure, but through promoting the need for APECS and for participating as mentors in our many activities,” she added.

“One of my personal motivations for starting APECS was to help get ‘new blood’ into polar research, particularly in Antarctica,” said Baeseman, who did three field seasons in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

“It’s a small community, and it’s often the same PIs that are funded year after year, and then their students pick up the reins, which can limit to some degree the new lines of thinking that enter polar research,” she added. “This makes it difficult for new people with great ideas to get involved — especially if their science questions and ideas are different from what has currently been funded.”

Since 2007, the group has coalesced around three main goals: connecting scientists across nations and disciplines; helping them navigate the culture of soft money and conference fatigue; and guiding eager researchers on effective ways to communicate their raw data into public engagement that departs from the standard schoolroom lecture on penguins.

“Outreach is one of those things that will compete for your time, and needs to get some of your time as well,” said Pope, an active user on the social media site Twitter, where he tweets under the handle @PopePolar from field sites in the Arctic.

Robert Bindschadler, a veteran polar scientist at NASA who co-edited a report published this year about the legacies and lessons about IPY, remarked about the power of social media in building the APECS network so quickly. He is also on the APECS Advisory Committee.

“They just burst on the stage,” he said during a webinar last month to highlight the “Legacies and Lessons of International Polar Year 2007-2008” report. “They grabbed all they could out of IPY. … They are eager to learn the trade and become leading researchers.”

And that is already happening.

José Xavier is one of the founding members of APECS. In the interim since, he has become a scientist at the Institute of Marine Research at the University of Coimbra in Portugal and also works with the British Antarctic Survey. In 2011, he was awarded the prestigious Martha Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica for his research on the predator-prey dynamics that sustain populations of albatrosses, penguins and other top predators in the Southern Ocean.

Xavier has moved into a mentorship role for other early-career scientists.

“I noticed I was becoming a mentor when I started providing ‘guidance’ to other early-career scientists rather than asking more questions to other mentors. I felt it as a normal process within APECS,” said Xavier by email.

Xavier said his responsibilities as a mentor include guiding young researchers on everything from managing time to the importance of education and outreach. “Always to make early-career scientists the best they can [be] in their careers,” he said.

Xavier has also helped foster an active APECS chapter in Portugal. Leading the national chapters is the United States, which accounts for about a sixth of the organization’s members. Russia and the UK, countries traditionally involved in polar research, also rank high on the list, according to Pope.

And then there are some nontraditional players in APECS, particularly from South America, he noted.

“There’s an increase in polar research in Brazil, and it’s really being taken up by the early-career researchers, which is great,” Pope said.

He said APECS is pretty evenly split among Arctic and Antarctic scientists, though many conduct bi-polar research, and also travel to high-altitude regions of the cryosphere.

“It’s a mix of research disciplines,” Pope said. “We easily represent any aspect of polar science, whether it’s glaciology or geology or ecology or engineering — or social science or law or oceanography. We have members all over the place.”

The meteoric rise surprised everyone involved.

“I did expect that the growth of APECS would be quick but never like this,” Xavier said. “It was amazing! Early-career scientists were so keen to get more engaged in polar science, education and outreach, and interested in having an active voice in all of these issues.”

More recently, he added, APECS has representatives involved in major polar organizations such as the Scientific Committee of Antarctic Research (SCAR) and International Arctic Science Committee (IASC).

“[That] gives APECS members a unique opportunity to learn how these organizations work, what are the opportunities that these organizations offer to early-career scientists, but most importantly, provide the essential information sharing between APECS and major organizations for the best of polar communities and excellence in science,”  Xavier said.

Baeseman noted that APECS has something to teach those venerable organizations as well, particularly in the fast-paced World Wide Web. In fact, the original APECS started as a Google group — and its strength continues to be through its savvy use of the latest technology and social media.

“This helped us easily connect, allowed anyone to join and for us to easily communicate quickly — and this quick communication is what has kept APECS moving at a faster pace than most organizations,” she said. “We have done things with YouTube, Vimeo, Animoto and many other free tools that allow us to communicate our message through video.”

Conference calls and lectures are conducted through online seminars and webinars. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were used before they became popular enough to merit billion-dollar IPOs. There’s even an iPhone app in the works.

“Many other organizations … are now following our example on many of these things — and come to us to help teach them how to do things,” Baeseman said, “so we are also providing a service to other senior organizations on this front.”

Above all, however, it’s the sense of community that APECS has built in its five short years of existence that keeps members engaged.

“Almost everything gets done by volunteers,” Pope said. “It’s really exciting to work with this group of people who all have these common goals of being interested in meeting other polar scientists from around the world, whether it’s other glaciologists or someone who loves icy places as much as you do.”

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs