MacGyvers of polar science
Research associates ensure experiments keep running year-round
Posted July 24, 2009
Robert Fuhrmann offers a pretty concise definition of his job as a research associate at the South Pole Station over the winter: “We’re customer field service engineers.”
Every year, literally hundreds of scientists head south to Antarctica to drill for ice cores, to study the physiology of penguins and seals, and to carry out a variety of other research that has implications from climate change to the origins of the universe.
But, during the winter months, there’s nary a scientist to be found. Most of the folks left on the Ice at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s three research stations for the dark, cold months are support staff in charge of maintaining facilities and equipment.
A small handful has the specialized task of ensuring ongoing research experiments hum along and data flow back to home institutions. These are the research associates (RAs) — engineer types who seem to know how to tinker and fix just about anything. MacGyvers of the beaker set.
“We are the eyes and hands for the grantee in this remote location at the end of the planet,” wrote Fuhrmann, one of two research associates at the South Pole, via e-mail. “We must remember, although we’re only here for a year, the grantee has put a fair amount of time and energy (perhaps a good portion of their career) into his [or] her experiment.”
This is Fuhrmann’s first trip to Antarctica, and he jumped in with both bunny boots on for a yearlong stint at South Pole Station, where the scientific emphasis is on “space science,” and where Fuhrmann looks after instruments like riometers, all-sky cameras, and fluxgate magnetometers that measure properties in the upper atmosphere.
This particular branch of research is new to Fuhrmann, but he had an extensive background in science support in a realm closer to home — oceanography. He has worked for both Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) as an engineer and pilot for underwater robots, including WHOI’s well-known ROV (remotely operated vehicle), Jason II.
And he’s no stranger to the polar region, with stints aboard Arctic research vessels and at a Greenland field camp. “That trip (along with my interest in alpine and ice climbing) confirmed that ice support could eventually be a career goal,” Fuhrmann said.
Though his most recent gig before heading south had him working on electrical systems design for a Las Vegas show with a company he had worked for a decade prior, doing robotics on commercials and films such as “The Perfect Storm.”
“The diversity and flexibility inherent in the special effects industry provided a smooth transition into this position,” Fuhrmann said.
But now he has returned to his first passion. “I wasn’t too particular on the location [in Antarctica], but I was more concerned with supporting science directly and able to impart my electrical/mechanical skill set,” Fuhrmann said. “I wasn’t really prepared to jump into a 12-month contract, but why not, especially since my preference is to continue supporting science on the ice (Arctic and/or Antarctica) in the future.”
A former teacher of chemistry at Western Carolina University , Jason Bryenton hadn’t worked in science support before taking the research associate job at McMurdo Station for the first time for the 2006-07 field season. He said his science background helped prepare him to tend the 16 different experiments at McMurdo, including a project that looks at the ozone hole and another that tracks the propagation of lightning strikes.
“I think having a good science background is ideal, in that it helps understand where the researchers are coming from and why the experiments are the way they are,” Bryenton said.
“Like so many others, I took the job for the adventure of coming to Antarctica,” he added. “Now that I’ve had the job for a while, I find it is an excellent fit for who I am, and what I want in a job. I have plans to return for the winter of 2010, as the RA here in McMurdo.”
Neal Scheibe wasn’t necessarily seeking out a polar adventure, or even an engineering job in the scientific realm. In 2005, the electrical engineer simply needed a job.
“I’m probably somewhat atypical of most Antarcticans, because it wasn’t some life-long dream of mine [to go to Antarctica] or something I’ve been trying to do for years and years and years,” said Scheibe, a research associate at Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula.
But the science and lifestyle of seasonal work have become addictive. Scheibe is on his fourth winter on the Ice, serving his first two at South Pole and now on his second at Palmer.
“I do enjoy the winters, actually,” he said. “At Pole, you have the auroras and you get that close community feeling. Here, with the boats coming and going, you don’t get that closed community or aurora here at all, but it’s an amazing outdoor experience here.”1 2 Next