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Stephanie Konfal and Mike Willis in Beacon Valley
Photo Courtesy: Mike Willis
Stephanie Konfal and Mike Willis deploy instruments for the TAMDEF project in the Beacon Valley in 2005. Both were students under Terry Wilson at the time. Willis is now a post-doctoral fellow at Byrd Polar Research Center. Each researcher at Byrd has his or her own story about choosing a career in science.

Road less traveled

Researchers at BPRC come from different backgrounds but share common motivation

Stephanie Konfal figured the oceanography class she signed up for while still in high school would involve studying something along the lines of dolphins and various fish in the sea. Instead, The Ohio State University class covered seafloor spreading and other geological processes. She was hooked.

“It was my first introduction to geology. I really liked it,” recalls Konfal, now a PhD student at OSU who was attracted to the university partly for the opportunity to work with advisor Terry Wilson in Antarctica, especially after an internship with the U.S. Geological SurveyExternal U.S. government site.

“Antarctica is such a unique place,” Konfal says. “I think understanding processes in Antarctica really helps you understand processes for the entire world. It’s really applicable. I think there are some things that you can only study in Antarctica. I really like the draw of that.”

Konfal’s story about how she became interested in science shares a common theme with many at OSU’s Byrd Polar Research Center (BPRC) — it just sort of happened.

“The least boring thing in high school, for me, was the science part of it,” recalls Wilson, principal investigator on an International Polar YearExternal U.S. government site  project called POLENETExternal Non-U.S. government site. (See related story: Moving experience.)

Wilson says she went off to college in 1972 with the idea of majoring in marine sciences, as that was what most women of that time ended up studying. She never even took a biology class after her first geology course. A field trip to the western United States “to look at rocks” solidified the choice.

Terry Wilson at Crape Crozier, Antarctica 

Photo Credit: Mike Willis
Terry Wilson, originally from Detroit, enjoyed working in the outdoors, one of the reasons she chose to be a field scientist. She's made 15 trips to Antarctica.

“I became enamored with studying things outside,” says Wilson, who has made 15 trips to Antarctica since 1989. “I’m from Detroit. That wasn’t part of my life until then.

“I love the outdoor part of geology, and I love the discovery part of Antarctica,” she adds. “Those two things go together well in Antarctica. There’s so much to discover that you can really be quite creative in trying to define the problems that you want to work on and what you need to do to work on them.”

Mike Willis, a post-doc at BPRC who has worked with Wilson’s research group for seven years, grew up with a love of the outdoors, with frequent childhood visits to the highlands of his native Scotland.

“I’m in this for the science, but I’m also in this for getting into the outdoors a lot,” says Willis, who made his first trip to Greenland last year after multiple deployments to Antarctica, including the first field season for POLENET.

As one would suspect of any scientist, Willis was particularly afflicted with a nagging sense of “Why?” That one-word question, like a species in search of niche, found its natural expression in scientific inquiry.

“I’m starting to get to the point — and I’m not there yet — where I can start to ask the questions that I want to have answered,” he says. “Questions that I think are important. Hopefully my peers, and people in government and people who make policy, will think they’re important, too, and I can get some funding for work that will make a difference.”

Konfal is also keen on contributing to society with her research, which included last year’s field season for POLENET. “The data we’re collecting contributes to the understanding of the ice sheets and sea level rise, and some really global processes that have high global impact,” she says.

“It’s so rewarding to see the whole process,” Konfal adds. “Actually going out to places. Collecting the data, processing the data, getting results, versus just doing the processing your entire life. I love the field. Just love the fieldwork.”

Like many of us who find ourselves on one career path or another, geophysicist Ken Jezek credits the enthusiasm of a high school teacher in steering him toward the sciences. That, and a workshop in Chicago attended by some of the most prominent astronomers of the time.

“It was very inspiring,” recalls Jezek, who got interested in high-energy physics at the University of Illinois. That led to work studying cosmic rays, and a project that involved distributing detectors from pole to pole, using the Earth’s magnetic field as a mass spectrometer. In 1974, he wintered at McMurdo Station.

With time to ponder his choices for graduate school that winter, Jezek took the advice of a Russian exchange scientist to study geophysics. In geophysics, the Russian told him, you’d always have a job. That same season Charles Bentley, a pioneering geophysicist who took part in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), accepted Jezek into his graduate program.

“I think he was trying to save money, because I was already down there, and I could start with his field program,” jokes Jezek, who served as the fourth director of BPRC for a decade, and conducts research in remote sensing and radar imaging of polar regions.

Larry Krissek, an associate professor of earth sciences at OSU, says his father was an engineer and mechanic, while his mother held an undergraduate degree in chemistry, a somewhat rare accomplishment for a woman in the 1940s. The home environment fostered intellectual curiosity, he says.

“They didn’t push science, but it was just something that I enjoyed and went to,” says Krissek, whose work in Antarctica includes two of the major sediment-coring projects of the last 10 years, Cape RobertsExternal Non-U.S. government site and ANDRILLExternal Non-U.S. government site.

For whatever reason these researchers say they chose a career in science, Wilson perhaps best sums up their motivation to keep probing the limits of human knowledge: “You do get answers, but any good project generates as many questions as answers. It keeps you going.” 

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