Dr. Ziolkowski meets the Antarctic

Picture by Kylie Sheaffer
Student window display at the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment at the University of South Carolina

“It was just giant in scale and beautiful and humbling.”

By: Kylie Sheaffer

The most prominent feature of Dr. Lori Ziolkowski’s office is her wall of pictures. It’s a sea of ice and blue skies.  The images have been blown up to poster-size, and they’re mesmerizing.  She gestures to a group of smaller pictures and explains that she had taken those during an expedition to Alaska.  She had gone to further her climate change studies back around 2014.  She then casually waves her hand towards the group of stunning, icy photographs closest to her desk, and explains that those were from her trip to Antarctica.

Antarctica is one of the most extreme and isolated regions in the world.  Traveling to and from the continent requires many resources and weeks of preparation.  It’s home to mainly scientific outposts, and tons and tons of ice.  Ziolkowski had the honor to journey there for scientific research.

“The whole thing was just very surreal,” says Ziolkowski.

Ziolkowski works as an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina.  She’s been teaching here since 2013 and works at the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment (SEOE), particularly in the marine science department.  She’s well-liked by students, too.  Most of her reviews on “Rate My Professor” reflect that, and many people are quick to recommend her.

“I loved taking her class.  She was a professor that would go above and beyond for students.  Every time we had a test, she was willing to meet with me to help me plan what to study for,” says Jessica Snyder, a former student of Ziolkowski’s.

Although she loves teaching, and prides herself in her job, Ziolkowski’s passion lies in field work.  Much of her career has been devoted to climate change, but Ziolkowski’s purpose for studying in Antarctica was to research the growth of life and microbiology in barren and remote environments.  It’s difficult for anything to survive through an Antarctic winter.  It was a bit different than what she was used to, but was still an experience she loved.  Ziolkowski intends to study the data she has collected now that she’s back in the states, and wants to use her findings to determine what she should be collecting next January when she returns to Antarctica.

It appears Ziolkowski relates to her students even more than they realize.  She jokes about working best under deadlines, and launches immediately into telling about how she was able to secure the Baillet Latour Fellowship needed for her research in Antarctica.  It was all on a whim, and she just happened to discover it because a friend forwarded an ad to her from Twitter.  Next thing she knew, she was the first female and non-European to be given the fellowship.

To give an idea of how quickly Ziolkowski’s expedition unfolded, she found the ad in late August.  She applied, and learned by October 10th that she had been awarded the International Polar Foundation’s fellowship.  November, she says, was the month for getting medical records ready, and by early January she was on a flight to Cape Town, South Africa.  It was one of her layovers on the way to her icy destination.  Five months and days of travel, was all the preparation she had for the research opportunity of a lifetime.

“This trip was a whole life lesson on learning how to depend on others,” says Ziolkowski.

The time prior to take-off was stressful.  Ziolkowski says, the many uncertainties of the trip, specifically medical ones, made her most nervous.  Once at her destination, Princess Elisabeth Station in East Antarctica, she knew she’d be a week away from any nearby hospital.  The stress was so substantial that Ziolkowski even began clenching her teeth in her sleep.  She had to see an endodontist the day before she left, because she was so nervous that she had convinced herself she needed a root canal.  Luckily, she didn’t.

“It wasn’t as arduous as I thought it would be,” says Ziolkowski, referencing what life was like once she arrived down south.

After her stress tests and blood tests and just a few short months of prep, Ziolkowski found herself landing on a strip of ice in Antarctica.  There aren’t any real runways at the southern-most end of the world, so pilots are trained to land in slippery environments.

The station, which Ziolkowski says didn’t use a generator the entire time she was there, is the first of its kind.  While she was there, it housed 17 people.  There was one computer with limited bandwidth for everyone to use, and a few luxuries, like multiple espresso machines, that surprised Ziolkowski.  She compared it to a mountain chalet, and emphasized its comfort.  Princess Elisabeth station is owned by a Belgian foundation and not by a government.  According to the International Polar Foundation, the station is a zero-emissions station and is about a decade old.  The primary language of the station is French, which Ziolkowski says she knows a bit off, because she’s from Canada, but definitely learned more of while abroad.

A requirement of everyone at Princess Elisabeth was to learn crevasse-rescue training.  All 17 crewmates had to practice climbing in to an icy crevasse, and had to practice pulling someone out.  Ziolkowski had prior ropes-skills and crevasse-rescue training, but was still a bit unnerved climbing into one, knowing a hospital was a week away.

“There’s not really sound in Antarctica.  If you think about outside, you hear city noises, you hear birds, you hear the wind and leaves.  But there you just have ice, and snow, right?  So, you hear the wind on your ears, but there’s not really other sounds.  And so then when you went down into the crevasse, it was just quiet,” she says.  She casually mentions that the ice they were on was approximately 900,000 meters thick, so the crevasse she scaled could’ve been quite deep.

Much of her experience with Antarctica seems as surreal as her crevasse adventure.  Her favorite day was in a Norwegian territory named Vesthugen.  It was essentially an ice-valley, carved out by wind, that took an hour to travel to.  Ziolkowski jokingly refers to snowmobiling, the team’s form of travel, as skadooing while describing this adventure.  It’s the Canadian snow-mobile, she says.

Despite receiving pre-frostbite that day, as she had to change from a snowmobile outfit to more flexible, hiking snow gear in -30 degree wind-chill, she calls it a good day.

“Being in the valley was stunning.  There were cliffs and waves of ice just sort of hanging into the valley.  The whole thing was surreal.  It was just giant in scale and beautiful and humbling,” Ziolkowski says.

She even ventured off alone while in Antarctica.  She could ski away from the Princess Elisabeth, as long as she stayed in view of the station; a bit like a child not being able to venture too far from home while playing.  She was never afraid, because safety was a clear concern and priority for everyone.

Her most shocking find that she’s discovered so far, was an open lake in Antarctica.  The lake wasn’t frozen over, and there wasn’t a clear source of running water that led into the lake.  The temperatures weren’t above freezing, either.  The lake was even home to kelp, despite it being located nearly 200km (nearly 125 miles) from the shore.  Not even the station’s director, a man who has skied the entire length of Antarctica, could find an explanation for the phenomenon.

Although Ziolkowski has had to put teaching on hold for the semester, to have proper time for travel and research, she thinks the time is good for her.  She has been preparing for the upcoming semester and how best to teach students about the work she is doing and about climate change as well, her specialty.

Her Antarctic research has gone over well with her department, too.  She’s gained quite a bit of support regarding her Antarctic expedition, more so than any other field work she’s done before.

“This is a true asset to teaching: the more an instructor is able to bring their own experience into the classroom and make science and scholarly work come alive, the more students are able to envision themselves in a related situation some day,” says Carol Boggs, director of the School of the Earth, Ocean, and Environment at U of SC.

Ziolkowski’s passionate view on life and research are nothing short of inspiring.

Sheaffer is a broadcast major