To the Poles and Beyond: A Look At How Young British Scientists Are Contributing To the International Polar Year

Written by Emma Irvine, Education and Outreach co-ordinator for the UK Polar Network. With thanks to James Cheshire, Tamsin Gray and Kate Hendry.

The UK Polar Network

The UK Polar Network (UKPN) is an organisation of young British scientists, who either research or have strong interests in the polar regions. They come from organisations across the United Kingdom, ranging in age from undergraduates to PhD students and post-doctoral researchers. The UK Polar Network does not exist alone; it is the British branch of the Association of Polar Early-Career Scientists (APECS), itself recently established as part of the International Polar Year (IPY). The aim of APECS and its subsidiary organisations like the UK Polar Network is to outlive IPY, and leave a legacy of international co-operation and friendship that future young scientists can benefit from.

James Cheshire, a geography undergraduate at Southampton University, set up the UK Polar Network in early 2007. Cheshire first became interested in glaciers when he visited Iceland with his secondary school. Since then, Cheshire’s enthusiasm for cold regions has grown, fuelled by spending two months on the Juneau Icefield in Alaska this past summer.

It was during preparations for this trip that Cheshire decided he wanted to do more to promote the issues surrounding glaciated regions and looked to IPY for support. He discovered a lack of organizations, particularly relating to the polar regions, that provide opportunities for networking between early-career scientists or for these scientists to share their enthusiasm for their subjects with a wider audience, by getting involved in education and outreach. This motivated Cheshire to found the UKPN, which has quickly grown in size to boast an organizing committee of 13 people, and a membership of over 140 early-career scientists.

James Cheshire
James Cheshire conducting research on the Juneau
Icefield, Alaska.
(Photo Courtesy James Cheshire, Southampton Univ.)

Creating links between young researchers

The young scientists that make up the UK Polar Network feel that it is important to create links between scientists across the spectrum of polar sciences. Science is multi-disciplinary and our network days show how important making these links is. A climatologist may predict a warming of the polar regions in coming decades, glaciologists look at how this affects the stability of the Greenland ice sheet and social scientists look at the challenges faced by the people who call these regions home to adapt whilst zoologists might study the response of the local wildlife.

It is important to provide opportunities for these scientists to network and share their research and ideas as well as learn about research in what they might have considered an unrelated field, the results of which could be relevant to their own studies. At the first UK Polar Network day held at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge in June, over 90 young scientists, including social scientists from around the country attended a day of talks by both young and more established scientists, saw footage of Antarctic expeditions from the BAS archive and exhibited their own research during a poster session.

UK Polar Network Day
UK Polar Network Day at the British Antarctic
Survey. (Photo Courtesy Narelle Baker, Scott Polar
Research Institute, Cambridge)

The UK Polar Network is also helping to organise a career development workshop immediately before the joint Scientific Commission for Antarctic Research (SCAR) and International Arctic Scientific Commission (IASC) open conference in St. Petersburg in July 2008. Opportunities like this will enable existing young scientists not just to talk to other scientists who might be doing similar research, but also advice on how to further their own careers.

Participation in science subjects both in schools and at universities in the UK is declining. Science taught in schools does not always seem relevant or interesting to young people, and against competition from subjects which are perceived as easier, science often loses out. This is the motivation behind getting young scientists to do more education and outreach work. One of the aims of the UKPN is to educate young people in schools not just about the science itself, but the opportunities that science affords. Not all researchers can go to Antarctica or spend months camped on an ice sheet and would not all want to either. However in a world that is increasingly reliant on science and technology, a degree in science opens doors, not just to careers in scientific research. The UKPN is planning school visits to coincide with National Science Week, and hopes that the links that young scientists make with schools will be beneficial not just to the schools but also to the researchers themselves.

The UK Polar Network outreach work doesn’t just include school visits. Some of the UK Polar Network committee recently attended the Explore conference, held by the Royal Geographical Society as panellists to share their knowledge of these regions with explorers and provide advice about doing fieldwork and expeditions in the polar regions, something that they have a lot of experience with themselves.

Research in extremes

At the UKPN Network days the conversation turns often from the research itself to how scientists conduct their research, and more specifically to field campaigns. If you want advice on what to wear to stay warm while drilling ice cores in Antarctica, or how to avoid travel sickness while flying 100ft above Arctic seas in an atmospheric research aircraft then look no further. Educating the next generation of polar scientists is high on the agenda of the organisers of IPY, and what better way to do this than to take young scientists on field campaigns and let them experience the polar regions first-hand. Apart from collecting valuable data which they can then analyse for their research, students learn how to do research in such extreme environments and return highly motivated.

UK Polar Network Day
The white continent. The scenery at Marguerite Bay,
West Antarctic Peninsula. (Photo Courtesy
Katherine Hendry, Oxford University)

Most polar scientists spend only a few weeks or a few months in the field collecting data, but for others it is their day job. One example is Tamsin Gray, a UK Polar Network member and British Antarctic Survey meteorologist whose current home is the Halley base on the Brunt ice shelf in Antarctica.

Gray’s work in Antarctica doesn’t just include releasing weather balloons and making meteorological observations.

“I get to spend days baking bread, driving bulldozers, digging snow to get water and abseiling down ice cliffs to visit the local colony of Emperor penguins,” Gray said.

Working in one of the most extreme environments on Earth is tough. Temperatures regularly fall below minus 40 degrees Celsius in the winter months when there is 24-hour darkness, and apart from a dozen or so other people on base, those cute little penguins are the only other living creatures for thousands of miles. Gray lists cold hands as one of the negative aspects of her job.

“In the Antarctic you have to go out and get on with your job whatever the weather, which sometimes mean working outside for long periods in extreme cold and darkness,” Gray said. “You learn the hard way to wrap up every last inch of bare skin.”

If you would like to find out more information about the UK Polar Network, including how to join, visit our new website. To find out about international activities, and find other national groups visit the APECS site.