After five hours on a 140-ton C-17 military aircraft that had taken off from Christchurch, New Zealand, Mee-ya Monnin, peering through one of the plane’s small circular windows, saw white ice covering the ocean. The members of her research team and military men on the plane with Monnin chuckled as she squealed and jumped up and down in her seat.
A few minutes later, the plane touched down on sea ice near the continent of Antarctica. Though she wore extreme cold weather gear, Monnin had left her puffy red parka unzipped and her gloves off. She felt the wind cut through her as she stepped onto the ice for the first time, and her hands were as cold as if they had just emerged from an ice bath. After a moment, Monnin realized her teeth were beginning to hurt from exposure to the cold air, but the pain couldn’t stop her from smiling in exhilaration.
“I had never seen so much white before,” Monnin says. “It was so flat, I felt as though I could see for miles without anything breaking my gaze. I felt absolute joy, excitement and the anticipation of extraordinary things to come. It was like my entire life had changed with those few steps.”
Monnin, an Oregon State University junior studying fisheries and wildlife science, arrived in Antarctica last October as part of a team of researchers including Oregon State fisheries and wildlife associate professor Markus Horning. As the team’s intern, she was assisting with the study of the heat regulation of Weddell seals. Monnin’s internship began in July 2011 at Hatfield Marine Science Center There, she spent four months helping to prepare for the team’s research in Antarctica, learning about the study and creating a blog and Facebook page to share information about the project.
While training at Hatfield allowed her to learn the skills she needed to fulfill her duties in the study, Monnin says nothing could have prepared her for the six weeks she spent chasing 1,000-pound seals on the ice.
“You’re in a totally different world and you’re completely at the disposal of your environment,” Monnin says. “Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest place on Earth. Coming back now and knowing that I did that, that I can survive in Antarctica, and feeling like I thrived there is absolutely amazing.”
Research in another world
Monnin and the research team stayed at McMurdo Station, a U.S. research station on Ross Island, Antarctica, with about 1,000 other people. They spent as many as 12 hours a day out on the ice riding snowmobiles and scouting for seals to collect data from and outfit with temperature sensors, often working past dinner. After a day on the ice, the team members would return to the base and work more in the lab to organize data and prepare for the next day. Throughout their time on the continent, Monnin was surrounded by continuous light. Antarctica’s last sunset for the year had happened in late October, just before the team arrived.
Monnin’s main role in the project was building 3-D models of seals from photos she took in the field. These models allow the team to determine the surface area of the seal, an important component in evaluating the energy needed for the seal to regulate its temperature in subzero Antarctic temperatures. The research team will return to Antarctica next fall to gather a second round of data, and will then analyze the information to determine the energetic cost for seals to maintain their temperature. Being able to define the varying costs of being on the ice and in the water, Horning says, will help researchers determine how seals forced to spend more time in the water by depleting ice in the Antarctic may be affected by climate change.
Though the long work days and her ambition to produce the most accurate results with her camera calibrations and 3-D models quickly became stressful, Monnin says the experience left her with renewed confidence in herself.
“It gives you a totally different perspective, not just self-confidence, but to have faith in your abilities and to know what you can really accomplish if you put your mind to it,” Monnin says. “To be completely active and engaged all the time and to take what you’ve learned and apply it in reality is really incredible.”
The ice bug
Now back at Oregon State and continuing her studies, Monnin is planning to use the data she helped collect last fall as well as the data the team gathers next season to write her University Honors College thesis. While working on this project, Monnin will continue to collaborate with Horning, whose mentorship she says helped to make her internship such an enriching experience.
Horning suggested bringing a student intern along with the team because he had the opportunity to do research in Antarctica as an undergraduate and wanted to share that exciting experience with young students. Having Monnin on the team also benefitted the professional researchers, he says, by reminding them of the wonder they felt when they first stepped onto the ice.
“It’s good to have someone on the team who is as enthusiastic as we were the first time, because it reminds you how amazing and unique the environment is,” Horning says.
In Monnin, Horning’s hope to foster a passion for Antarctic research has been realized. Bitten by what Horning calls “the ice bug,” Monnin says that though she’s not yet sure what she wants to do after she leaves school, she is certain she wants to return to Antarctica. Fortunately, she’ll be going back sooner than later — Monnin applied for and received the internship again this year, and will be back in Antarctica with the team this fall.
“It took awhile to adjust when I first got there,” Monnin says. “But being home now, all I can think about is getting back to Antarctica.”
When she first learned about the internship almost one year ago, Monnin says she hesitated, wondering if it was possible for her. After taking a leap and having the adventure of her life, Monnin is adamant that students should take advantage of internship opportunities that excite them, however unlikely or complicated they may seem.
“So many students see a great opportunity and they let it pass by,” Monnin says. “They think they don’t have enough experience, or they worry about graduating on time or paying more money, but you can’t let stuff like that hold you back. An opportunity like this is not only going to make you that much better of a future employee, it’s going to change your life.”
Read more about Monnin’s first season in Antarctica and follow her this fall as she returns at blogs.oregonstate.edu/hailingfrozenthoughts/.
A life-changing legacy
Horning was inspired to include a student intern on the Antarctic research team because of an unexpected opportunity he received as an undergraduate.
When he was studying physics at the University of California San Diego in 1978, Horning personally experienced the transformative power of working in the Antarctic. After getting a job cleaning seal tanks at the university’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, he was invited to spend a year in Antarctica studying the diving habits of Weddell seals. Horning was so affected by the experience that he changed his course of study to pursue marine biology.
“What really changed my life was going to Antarctica,” Horning says. “Recently, I decided that was such an amazing opportunity that I’d like to pass that on to other students so they could have that chance to get excited about the field.”