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Interview of Ellen Mosley-Thompson by Morgan Seag on April 3, 2018,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/24267
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This interview was conducted by Morgan Seag for her graduate research work on the U.S. Antarctic Program at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. In this interview, Mosley-Thompson discusses her family background and upbringing in West Virginia, her interest in science from an early age, her decision to study physics in college, and the happenstance manner in which she became involved with the Institute of Polar Studies at the Ohio State University. Mosley-Thompson describes extracting the climate history of an Antarctic ice core for her Ph.D. and the circumstances leading to her first visit to Antarctica in 1982, and what it was like to be among the first female scientists working in this field. The interview covers Mosely-Thompson’s subsequent trips to the Antarctic and other locales for field research, and her thoughts on the changing programmatic and research aspects of the field over the past three decades. Mosley-Thompson also discusses her involvement in federally-supported research initiatives and her specialized contributions in data analysis and graphing, while balancing family and research responsibilities with her husband and fellow scientist and Ohio State University professor Lonnie Thompson. The interview concludes with Mosely-Thompson’s description of her work as Director of the Byrd Center and her ongoing interest in research and teaching.
This is Morgan Seag, and I’m speaking with Dr. Ellen Mosley-Thompson, who is Distinguished University Professor at The Ohio State University and Director of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at OSU. Today is April 3, 2018, and we are speaking at the Byrd Center. Thank you so much for speaking with me.
Thank you. I’m glad to be able to have a chat. And thank you for coming.
Thank you. So, let’s start at the very beginning. What was your upbringing like? Where were you raised?
I was born in Charleston, WV, which is the state capital, in 1948. So I was a post-World War II baby – baby boomer. And all of my education was in Charleston, WV. So I went to kindergarten, grade school, middle school, and high school in what is called Kanawha County, which is where Charleston is situated. In my junior year, I transferred from Stonewall Jackson High School to Nitro High School. And that’s an interesting name: Nitro is a little small town outside of Charleston; it’s named for nitroglycerine, which is where they stored nitroglycerine, which is used in bomb making, during World War II.
My family moved to a place called Cross Lanes, which was just outside of Charleston, to have a little more land and to get out of the city proper. And the children who lived in Cross Lanes went to the Nitro schools. So, I’m a 1966 graduate of Nitro High School.
Are these the public schools?
Yes. Oh, yes. The Thompson family believes in public education. Our daughter, who was born and raised here in Columbus, Ohio, is a full product of the Columbus public schools.
What were your parents like?
I had great parents. Probably the typical parents for the late 1940s, early 1950s. My mother’s primary job when I was young was to raise me. She worked before I was born.
What did she do?
Secretary. And then she stayed at home until I started grade school, then she worked part-time at a law firm. And my father’s job was to be the breadwinner, and so he sold life insurance.
Do you remember as a child being interested in science or the environment?
Always. I’ve always been interested in science. I probably – if I think back, if I had thought about it when I was young, it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say I always expected I would be a scientist. But I didn’t think about it that deeply, you know? When you’re young, you don’t think about it that deeply, but I always did all the science fair projects. My parents, and particularly, my mother, was very engaged in helping me secure the supplies and the things that I needed to do my science fair projects, which included going to the local slaughterhouse to get some animal organs. [laughs]
Yeah. I thought at one time I might like to be a veterinarian, but – and I don’t know why I didn’t go that route, except when I was a junior at Nitro High School, I had a teacher, Mr. Shank, who taught physics, and he was just so engaging and such a wonderful person that he got me very interested in physics. So, from that point on, I knew I was going to be a physicist. Interestingly, I’m kind of a physicist still, in that I use physics and physical principles. But I’m actually an ice-core paleoclimatologist now.
Where do you think that interest in science came from?
I do not know, because neither of my parents was particularly engaged in science. I mean, we always had National Geographic around the house, for example. Still do. Lonnie and I have been getting National Geographic since 1970. (So yeah, we need to make a trip to the recycler, or find someplace that would like our collection). But it was probably that. My father did not have a college education. After high school, he was drafted into – well, he didn’t draft. I don’t know. Everybody went, and I don’t know if they called it a draft in 1940. Let’s see – he would have gone… into the Army in 1942 and he did his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and then was shipped overseas. All of his time in the Army was in the European theater. Yeah, he was in the Battle of the Bulge. He served in Belgium and France. Don’t think he actually was in Germany, per se. I can’t remember all the countries. It’s all on his discharge papers. So, by the time he came back – and then immediately married my mother, because they knew each other before he went into the service as they met in high school. He came back, they got married, and then he needed to start being the breadwinner, so he started with an insurance company. He loved selling insurance, he loved people, and he did that all of his life. My mother actually had two years of college, so in the early part of the war, she was at William & Mary College in Virginia. But she wanted to be a writer, like you. She loved to write poetry. She loved to write stories. Her mother died when she was young, and she was raised by an aunt and uncle who were wonderful to her. They took her and raised her like their own. But at that time, women had three professions: they were either homemakers, they were secretaries, or they were nurses. And they told her if she wanted to stay in college – well, they told her, “You’ll never be able to make a living and support yourself as a writer. You either have to go into nursing, or you have to go into secretarial study,” which they taught in college, believe it or not. So she quit. And what she did at that time, because the war was underway, is she moved to Washington, D.C., and worked as a secretary in one of the war offices. So when my Dad came back, they got married. Two years later, I was born, and then she pretty much stayed home until I went to school.
Do you have any siblings?
No, I’m an only child. And my daughter is an only child, and my father was an only child. I’m very interested in anything that affects the climate and the environment. And one of the factors that’s important is human population. I find it interesting just looking back at how in the early days – like the late 1800s and the early 1900s, how large the families were, and how quickly those numbers came down. And there were many reasons for that, but my grandmother, my father’s mother was quite a pioneer in her day. She was the last of 13 children, nine of whom lived to adulthood, and she was the only one who went to college. To go to college, she had to ride a horse from the farm in Monroe County over to Peterstown to go to college, and she became a schoolteacher.
Do you know what college it was?
No I don’t but it was a small teaching college – I think in Peterstown. But anyway, she was one of 13, and she ended up a schoolteacher. Then she married a coal miner and had my father. Two years later her husband died so as a widow she moved to Charleston, worked her entire career for what was called United Fuel, which was a forerunner of Columbia Gas. And she had one child. And then my parents had one child, and I have one child. So it’s kind of interesting that you go from 13 children in the family to 1 so quickly.
Does your daughter have a family?
No. Well, I have a grand dog. She has a Pekinese called Yuki, Japanese name, who she adopted because it was a special needs dog with one eye. But no grandchildren, and maybe I won’t have any. I don’t know. But as you know, something like that is a personal decision, and a good parent doesn’t meddle in their children’s lives any more than you feel you absolutely have to. [laughs]
Speaking of children, I have two last questions about your childhood.
Do you remember traveling much or having an interest in hiking in the outdoors?
No, I really didn’t. I didn’t have many opportunities. I was in the Brownies, I was in the Girl Scouts, and so we did some little camping trips and things, some outdoor activities, because we all wanted to get our badges, right? So we learned how to build a campfire and do things like that, first aid. So yes, I did some camping with the Girl Scouts, but my parents really weren’t focused on many outdoor activities. I did like hiking. I didn’t travel abroad until I was actually at Ohio State University, but my mother and I did a lot of local traveling. As I had mentioned, she was raised by her aunt and her uncle, and that was in a small town called Nuttsville, in a small county called Lancaster County in the northern neck of Virginia. We spent every summer there. So I had the opportunity to spend time on the water. My uncle, the great-uncle who raised her, was an old-style country doctor who went out to see his patients. And I got to ride with him, and meet people, and get over on the Rappahannock River and meet the watermen and go out on their boats, help with oystering and crabbing and things like that. So I enjoyed that, but that was really the extent of the travel.
Did you know anything at all about the polar regions?
Nothing. Never thought about it. I lived my life so fast, it was like – I was always engaged in so many things. I also had horses, so horses took a large portion of my time up until I went to college. And so when I went to college, I still had two horses. And I showed them, in spring, summer, and fall, every weekend I was going to horse shows. So yes, in that regard, I traveled in the Ohio-West Virginia-Kentucky circuit for horse showing. So there really wasn’t a lot of time for what you might call more “sexy” travel such as Europe. Nothing like that. I love to travel now.
And how did you pick your university?
Well, finances had a lot to do with it, as you can imagine. So normally, in-state tuition is much cheaper than out-of-state. I didn’t even consider going out of state. I knew it wasn’t financially a possibility. And so in West Virginia, students who are going to stay in West Virginia either go to West Virginia University in the northern part of the state, or to Marshall, which is in Huntington. And kids from the southern part of the state go to Marshall more frequently and vice versa for the kids living in the northern part of the state. I went to Marshall University and started there in 1966 in physics. I graduated in 1970 in physics and math.
And what was life like at Marshall?
I loved it. It was great. My first year I lived in the dormitory. That was a requirement. There, the rooms were very small, but there were four girls to a room, and two of my roommates were from Worcester, Massachusetts. And the other one was from a little place called Apple Grove, on the Ohio River in West Virginia. And the two from Worcester were twins. We stayed good friends until one of the twins decided to leave and get married. And in the meantime, we’d met another girl who lived in another room – she and another girl lived in the room next to us. It ends up the one girl lived less than a mile from where my family lived, and we had gone to high school together. So four of us in our sophomore, junior, and senior years got an apartment. We stayed together as a group for those three years, and all graduated in 1970.
Are you still friends with them?
I keep up with two of them: the one who was from Cross Lanes, and the other one who was from Dunbar. I’m in touch more closely with the one from Dunbar although she now lives in Pennsylvania. But I’ve seen them both multiple times since graduation.
What were they studying? Do you remember?
One was studying home economics. Home Ec. [laughs] And the other one was studying English.
What was life like in the department?
The physics department? It was great. I could characterize it two different ways. In one way, it was a little lonesome. And in the other way, it was really fantastic. Now, let me explain that. So I was only the second woman to enter the physics department. The first woman was the daughter of the chairman of the department. I did not know her because she preceded me by a number of years. But there’s an interesting story. So these were the days where there was no open enrollment. You actually had to apply specifically to a department. Well, you applied to the university, and based on your credentials, you were accepted. You also had to declare a major, and you had to be accepted by the department. So of course, I was going to study physics. The minor in math just comes along with physics because you need the math as well. So I had been at Marshall little more than a week or so, and Dr. Martin, the Department chair – I remember his name very clearly – he was probably at the time about 60 years old – called me into his office to have a chat. And he said, you know, “You know you’re the only woman in the physics department.” I said, “Yes, I know that.” He said, “You know that you’re taking a seat from some male student who will likely be a breadwinner, and you’re probably going to end up being a homemaker.” Today, you would never say that. Today I would have him turned over to human resources in a heartbeat. But in 1966, number one, you respected your teachers, your professors. And number two, when you’re kind of trying to blaze a trail, the thing you don’t want to do is alienate people early on. So I was shocked, but I took it – I took it like a man, you know, as they say. “I took it like a man.” I just said, “Sir,” because that’s what you called your professors. They all wore ties at the time. I said, “Sir, I know exactly what you’re saying, but that is not my goal in life. And my goal is to do the best I can, be competitive, and to make you proud.” And he said, “All right, we don’t have to discuss it anymore. We won’t mention it again, and good luck.” And it was never, ever mentioned again. So initially, it was a little bit lonesome being the only female.
Do you think that any part of his reservations or that sort of broader cultural attitude had to do with the fact that so many of the young men were in Vietnam at the time, and this idea that women were coming in and taking positions while they were gone? I’ve heard that from other women.
Yeah. I didn’t get that sense at all. Because at that point, the war was still going on, and I think it was that department chairs want the very best students in their department, and they want their students to finish. It doesn’t look good if you don’t finish, you know? If your dropout rate is high, if you’re losing 30% of your students who start as freshmen, it’s not very good for the administration to see that. It’s the same thing today. I think it was because it was highly competitive. It was a small department. They had X number of seats. And I am confident that – I know my scores were great, and I beat out a lot of young men. And I think that was it. And he was concerned that I would find someone and choose to get married and drop out. So actually, I don’t like to brag, alright? I think I’m probably one of their most successful alums from the department. And in fact, they’ve had me back several times. I’ve won an alumni award from Marshall, etcetera. Unfortunately, Dr. Martin passed away long before I achieved some professional success. But when I started at Marshall, there was a young professor. He had just gotten his Ph.D. at West Virginia University, Dr. Wesley Shanholtzer. I remember him well. A very good professor. And when I came back to Marshall to get their distinguished alumni award, he of course was much older then, but he served as my host and told me many times how proud he was and that meant really a lot. And I know Dr. Martin would have been proud as well. So, but let me get back to your question. I said it was lonesome at times. Well, I developed a fantastic cohort of friends. Because physics majors take – let me say it this way – engineering majors take a lot of physics and math, so I made three or four really good friends who were engineers. Also I’ve always hung out with males more than females. I mean, even when I was a child, when I was showing horses I always integrated very well with males. It was not a problem. I wasn’t shy. I wasn’t even interested in boys, to be honest. I was interested in horses. So at Marshall, I had a wonderful cohort of engineering buddies, all males of course, at the time. No women in engineering at the time. And I mean they would invite me to go home and meet their families and their girlfriends. They all had girlfriends. They were all from southern West Virginia, and they all had girlfriends who were not in college but were working. And so I got to know their families, and I actually keep up with two of them and with their families, their wives, and I’m up-to-date on what’s happening with their children. So once I met this engineering cohort, we did everything socially together. I was no longer lonesome.
That’s really nice.
Yeah. It was a great experience.
Did you have any inkling at that time that you might end up in the field sciences?
In like going to the field?
Didn’t even think about going to the field. Again, just didn’t even entertain those possibilities. I always figured I would be a lab scientist. But it didn’t work out that way.
And did you go straight to graduate school?
Yes and no. let me explain. In my senior year at Marshall, I met Lonnie.
He was a student there?
He was a student at Marshall. Interestingly enough, he was a geology major, and the geology department was on the fourth floor of the same building in which physics was on the first floor. But we didn’t meet until our senior year, actually, halfway through the senior year. But then by the end of the year we had started dating. We both graduated 1970. But Vietnam was still going on. His draft number was really high, something like 54. He was accepted into the National Guard, was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, exactly where my father did his basic training. Now Lonnie and I had both applied to Graduate School. Lonnie applied to Ohio State because at that time Jim Schopf, who was probably the best coal geologist in the country, was there. Lonnie’s goal was to study coal geology and get a job back in West Virginia. But Lonnie had to complete his basic training and get started on his National Guard service. So he was very fortunate that Ohio State agreed to hold his funding until September 1971. In the meantime I applied to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and received a full ride for 4 years to cover my M.S. and Ph.D. in physics so I started there in September 1970 while Lonnie was meeting his military commitment. At Miami I very quickly sorted out that I did not want to spend four years getting a Ph.D. in physics: number one, because all the people in the physics department at Miami (who were all men) couldn’t get jobs. There were absolutely no jobs in physics in 1970. So I saw these more senior students who had invested four or five years in their Ph.D. and yet had no prospects of jobs. And I thought, “I don’t like this at all.” So I left Miami (it was a hard decision) and took a 6 month teaching position in Charleston, WV as a junior high school math teacher filling in for a teacher on leave. So I went back to Charleston and did that, and his basic training was over at the end of that semester. We then got married in June of 1971 but had to wait until September to move to Columbus so he could start at Ohio State. Since I was not sure what I wanted to do I had not applied to any graduate programs. Frankly, I did not have a plan. We came to Columbus in September and didn’t have any money. Everything we owned fit in the back of his uncle’s pickup truck that we borrowed to drive our possessions there. We ended up on the west side of Columbus in a real dump, because we knew nothing about Columbus and we only had a weekend to find an apartment. It had no hot water, very little heat and was in a very unsafe part of town. Fortunately we had the foresight to immediately apply for OSU’s Buckeye Village Married Student Housing, and in December, we got an apartment. It was 2 rooms; rent was $93 and included all utilities and bus service to campus. It was like, you know, manna from heaven. We thought we were in tall cotton – we had it made. We lived there six years, in a one-bedroom apartment in Buckeye Village. But money was still tight, so I took a job working downtown in Columbus for a bookkeeping company. And what was interesting was bookkeeping at that time, it was medical bookkeeping, and the records were kept on little cards that you filed, alright? Now, here I am, I’ve got a bachelor’s in physics and I’ve completed a semester of graduate school. I had more education than my bosses, but I wanted – I needed this job. And I can remember the man who hired me said, “We really need somebody who works hard.” I said, I work hard. He said, “But you’ve got to demonstrate some skill, okay?” Well, what do you want me to do? He said, “Well, here are all these cards, and here’s this little filing system, and I want you to put them in alphabetical order.” And I took those cards and I whipped them into alphabetical order, probably the fastest he had ever seen. He said, “Well, I think we’re going to hire you.” So I started out doing medical records on paper, but it was at the time when computers were just beginning to enter into more general use. The company decided that they were going to lead the charge and change all their medical records and all their bookkeeping over to being computer-based. I couldn’t have been better placed. So I went out, and I received some training from Hewlett-Packard, and so I spent the next two years going out to doctor’s offices, converting them to the computerized bookkeeping system, working in the office with the computerized system, and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. It happened that here at the Byrd Center, which was then called the Institute of Polar Studies –
Is that where Lonnie was based?
Yes. Well, he was in the geology department, which was in the same building as the Institute of Polar Studies. And I’ll go back to Lonnie, because that’s an interesting story. So here I am, working along, and he’s doing his thing, getting his master’s in geology and then planning to continue to the Ph.D. But he became involved with the Institute of Polar Studies pretty quickly, and I’ll tell you shortly how that evolved. And so I actually started coming to the Institute of Polar Studies when I had spare time, or on the weekends when he was studying. And I began to meet the people, and that is where I saw the announcement that said, “Are you interested in atmospheric, climate, and weather? Apply.” I applied and received a fellowship to support my studies in the Atmospheric Science Program, which at the time was housed in Electrical Engineering. So technically, I was an atmospheric science student in the Electrical Engineering department. I felt very at home there, you know, given the physics background. So after the two years of medical bookkeeping I had everything sorted out – and knew what my plan was going to be. I quit the bookkeeping, and in September of ’73 I started here as a graduate student in that program. Well, what happened to Lonnie is in his first year here also changed his career path. He was studying with Jim Schopf, coal geology specialty, and Colin Bull, who was the chairman of the department, said to Lonnie, “How would you like an opportunity to go to Antarctica? You could go to Antarctica as a field assistant to my senior graduate student Ian Whillans.” Lonnie said, “Well, I’d love to do that.” So he went to Antarctica with Ian, and fortunately they made it back. They had some interesting experiences. That’s for another day. But he came back and changed his major immediately to glaciology, and Colin Bull became his advisor. And then he further strengthened his relationship with the Institute of Polar Studies. When I started graduate school in ’73, I became engaged very quickly with the institute because he was already well engaged. And we’ll both tell you right now, anytime, if the Institute of Polar Studies had not been at Ohio State, we would have gotten our degrees and left and gone somewhere else. But it’s such a wonderful place. It’s been so important to our lives, and it is this center, which is, as you know, now called the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, that is responsible for the Thompsons still being at OSU today. So that’s kind of the story. So I spent two years, got a master’s in atmospheric science.
Do you mind if I – I want to rewind a little a bit and ask, how did you feel when your newish husband was going off to the Antarctic?
He went to Antarctica in 1972, so we’d only been married one year. And it was lonesome, and of course I worried, because I had no clue what he would be doing exactly. Of course I knew where Antarctica was. I’d seen lots of slides from people who had been there, because I was so engaged with the Center already. So other than missing him, I did not have much time to think about it as I was too busy doing other things.
You weren’t beginning to think, “Oh, I wish I could do that”?
No, not at that time. Yeah, I didn’t really catch the bug until later in the ’70s.
So you’re getting your master’s.
Got the master’s, then I went right on and got the Ph.D. So he finished his Ph.D. in ’76; I finished my Ph.D. in ’79. You note the three-year difference: that’s the two years additional I worked before I started back in graduate school, plus I had – we had our daughter. So I was a very pregnant graduate student. [laughs] Just starting my Ph.D., you know. I got my master’s in ’75, and then I got my Ph.D. in ’79. Normally you’d take three years for the Ph.D., but I had our daughter in there. Yeah. I continued to get sucked in more tightly to the Center. We had what were called brown bag lunches and the scientists and students, who had gone to Antarctica or to Greenland or, other places, would come back with their slides and tell about their field experiences. And I really caught the bug, I think, from those people and from their enthusiasm. And for my Ph.D., I analyzed an ice core and extracted the climate history from this ice core that was actually drilled at South Pole Station. And what’s interesting is there was the old South Pole Station, which was actually the second rendition of the station, and they were tearing it down to build the new geodesic dome. They drilled an ice core right there at the site where they going to build the dome. The core was 101 meters long and contained a 900-year record. And my Ph.D. was analyzing the dust, the insoluble dust, to characterize what the climate was like over that 900 years. That was the topic of my dissertation. So I finished that in 1979. But by then, I was really, really very interested in Antarctica, having done a dissertation about Antarctic climate as extracted from an ice core. So, I wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation to go back to South Pole and to drill another core, but of course, not under the dome. The dome was built on top of the hole where the first core was drilled. And my proposal was to go a little distance from the station and to drill a much deeper core to get a much older history. And that’s what funded me to go to Antarctica for the first time in 1982.
Before we get to that…
A question about your Ph.D., were you still in the electrical engineering department?
No. So what happened is the person who ran the atmospheric science program was an electrical engineer. His name was Thomas Seliga, and his specialty was polarimetric radar remote sensing. The interest of using radar in climatology and meteorology for weather prediction was really hot and he was hired away from Ohio State, and there was no one to run the program. So John Rayner, who was then the chair of the Department of Geography, he was a physical geographer, climatologist, who had actually come to Ohio State at the request of Colin Bull to work in the Institute of Polar Studies. But John Rayner quickly migrated over to the Department of Geography, where he was appointed as an assistant professor in climatology. So John Rayner said, “We’ll take – the geography department will take the atmospheric science program.” So now, I’m a physicist/polar enthusiast in the Atmospheric Science Program in the Department of Geography, but with close ties to the School of Earth Science, formerly the Geology Department, as it was called then, and to the Institute of Polar Studies (now the Byrd Center). So I was very fortunate that I had classes with Dr. Gunter Faure, who was a foremost geochemist, and with Richard P. Goldthwait, who was a very well-known glacial geologist for whom the Goldthwait Polar Library here in the Center is named. So I had four people on my dissertation committee. My advisor, John Rayner; John Arnfield, who was a microclimatologist; Dr. Goldthwait; and Gunter Faure. So I was as much a physical scientist/geologist/glaciologist as I was a climatologist/atmospheric scientist. So I benefitted tremendously from this very broad education. And I was able to meld all of that into what I’ve done all my life, all my working – my real career life, which is to extract ice cores, measure the physical and chemical properties, integrate those records with meteorological and climatological records, and what we know about the paleo-histories from other records like tree rings, corals, etcetera, lake sediments, and integrate the ice core records with other paleoclimate records to extract in some cases, very unique – “unique” meaning “never before extracted” – histories. So that’s kind of the circle of how that transpired. And then it was just logical that Lonnie and I would work together, because when I was analyzing the dust on the South Pole core, I was working in the lab that he built. So we’ve worked together ever since 1973 when we were both graduate students.
I’m curious about what IPS was like at the time. Of course, this is the institute that sent the first American women scientists to the Antarctic.
Were there other women at the institute when you were here?
Yeah, there were some women – but there weren’t many. And most of them were in what was then called the Department of Geology. Now it’s the School of Earth Sciences. And some of those women were very engaged with the institute, even though they were doing their degrees. So one that I know that you will have talked to (or if you haven’t, you should) is Eileen McSaveney, okay? So it ends up that she and her husband Mauri were Ph.D. students at the same time that Lonnie and I were Ph.D. students. My office was in the Institute of Polar Studies as I didn’t really have an office in the geography department because I spent all my time at the Institute. So I saw Eileen on a regular basis, and we were friends. And we bought their Volkswagen Bug from them when they were leaving to go back to New Zealand. Fred was his name – the car. [laughs] And we’ve kept in touch. I mean, we see each other at AGU periodically, and we exchange Christmas notes, etcetera.
And of course, Eileen was on that original [first all-female expedition] -
Did she talk about that at all?
Not very much. She really didn’t. And here’s what’s interesting. I don’t think most of us care to talk about it much. I don’t care. I mean, I guess maybe you can sense the enthusiasm here of like being forced to go back and think about, you know, how my life transpired, because I never think about it. We’re all too busy just living life and doing whatever it is that we have to do to, you know, meet our goals and our deadlines, etcetera. So no, we didn’t – and even when I was getting ready to go to Antarctica in 1982, I didn’t even think to contact her and say, “What can I expect?” Well, part of that is her experience was so different from what mine was going to be. You know their trip was well-orchestrated. Everything was pretty much done for them, and their research – the research they did was in the Dry Valleys. I was going to South Pole, and her experience at South Pole was getting off the plane, walking around briefly, getting on the plane and leaving. So, I didn’t really have many mentors to contact and ask, you know, “What was it like?” Now, Rosemary Askin – I’m trying to remember when Rosemary came. She may have come – she may have been there in ’82, or she and Philip may have come just a little bit later. I don’t remember.
They came around ’76.
Okay. So, we knew each other very well, and Lonnie and I socialized with both her and her first husband, Phil Kyle. I probably talked to Phil more than I talked to her about what it was I might expect. I don’t know why that was. I really don’t. But there really weren’t that many people at the institute who had much field experience on the polar ice sheet. Most of them were geologists who were working in the Transantarctic Mountains or the Dry Valley area. But the National Science Foundation did something back then that they don’t do now (at least I don’t think they do it). That was – they had a workshop for the people going to Antarctica. And you went, and I can’t remember precisely where it was, but it was at –
Yeah. That was it. And so they took us there, and they had people who had experience come in and talk to us and tell us really what we could expect. I wouldn’t say I was particularly well-prepared for the field project. The field project went great. I couldn’t have worked with a better group of people. I mean, my team was just three people, and we joined three others: two were from the University of Bern in Switzerland, and the other one was from the University of Washington in Seattle. That’s six of us. And then we joined a team of ice core drillers.
Could you describe what it was like landing on the continent the first time?
Well, the first time – the first time, I don’t even think I made it on the first trip. I think we left Christchurch and did a turnaround, meaning we hit the point of no return and the weather was insufficient at McMurdo, and they routed us back. I mean, I love New Zealand. And by the way, the trip to Antarctica was my first trip outside the United States. So you had asked me that earlier on: had I traveled anywhere? Well, yes, I’d traveled a bit around the U.S., but I hadn’t ever left the country. And you know, I still remember - it’s amazing the things you remember. I remember getting on the plane because I was going to be gone 2 1/2 to 3 months. It took much longer to do those expeditions then than it takes now for a variety of reasons. And I remember getting on the plane at Port Columbus, and I don’t know where I was going to make a connection. Ultimately, I was going to Los Angeles. And I remember looking down at the motor on the wing, and it said “Rolls Royce.” And I thought – this is how naïve I was. I just didn’t think about this, I thought, “Well, why would there be a Rolls Royce motor?” Because I thought they made cars. Of course, they make jet engines, too. But I didn’t know that at the time. So it was very, you know – I wasn’t very skilled, let’s put it that way. My nose had been in the book and in the ice core, but my worldly experience was like zero. [laughs] So New Zealand was fantastic. I’ve been there many times now. So when you get a turnaround, it’s not terrible, because you actually get to go back to New Zealand and have more New Zealand time, which is wonderful. But ultimately, then I went to McMurdo, then you go to – they called it “ski school,” but you don’t really learn to ski. You go out, and you learn how to survive on the ice, how to go down or climb down in crevasses, get out of crevasses, how to build a shelter and make your meal and spend your night in your igloo that you’ve made from the blocks you’ve cut. And you do it with a team.
What did you think of all that?
I loved it! It was fantastic. It was just absolutely fantastic. And I think that’s when I got the bug, it was having that experience. So after you do “ski school,” you go back to McMurdo, and then you have to get all your gear together. If you’re doing a remote field work, which mainly that’s what I’ve done since 1982 – most of my experiences have all been remote field camps. But that year, 1982, I was not the field leader, which was a wonderful thing. My field leader was a professor from the University of Bern, and his postdoc and assistant, and also Pieter Grootes from the University of Washington, and then I had two people with me, neither of whom had Antarctic experience either.
Who was with you?
Phil Kruss and Tom Bain. Tom Bain had outdoor experience and Phil Kruss had mountain experience, but neither of them had polar ice sheet experience, nor did I.
Did you have outdoor or mountain experience by then?
No. Nope, I didn’t. Not at all. So ultimately we flew from McMurdo up to South Pole. Now, going to South Pole is very interesting, because you fly over the Transantarctic Mountains, and usually the route you take is up over the Beardmore Glacier. And you know, once you’re up in the air, they let you get out of your harness, and you can walk around, and you can look out, and you can take photographs. And the pilots are always very nice about asking, particularly the newbies, if they want to come up and, you know, ride up front. Of course, I took advantage of that. And I remember clearly flying up the Beardmore Glacier and coming up onto the polar plateau, and was struck by how flat it was, and there was nothing there. And then you fly on another 40, 50 minutes to an hour, and then suddenly out there, you see a little scratch in the snow. And that’s what it looks like: a little scratch in the snow. And it gets larger and larger, and you see it’s a runway. And it’s a runway with a dome sitting over to the side and then you see a little red tower behind the dome, which was called “Sky Lab,” and then another little box that was the clean air facility, and that was all there was. That was it. And you land on the runway, and you taxi up toward the station. They open the door, and the air hits you. And it takes your breath. Your nose hairs freeze and it’s like you’re gasping for breath, because you’ve just come from sea level up to about 2,800 meters. But I had been well warned: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Start with aspirin, or – I’m allergic to aspirin, so I take Tylenol. Take aspirin or Tylenol the day or two before you go. Hydrate, hydrate. So I actually did rather well, but the cold was just – I had never experienced cold like that, even in our freezers here, because you have to add the wind. And so it was – I mean, it’s one of those memories that you will take to your grave – what was it like the first time you landed there? I worked out of South Pole – one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times; but two of the times it was just like a waypoint to where I was ultimately going to or coming from. So my second project was in 1985 at Siple Station. (Siple, named after Paul Siple, the Boy Scout who went with Byrd). So Siple Station was at the time a permanent station located at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula. It was actually a station designed specifically to study the ionosphere, so it was really a radio-based type station, looking at radio waves. And they had a massive ground-based antenna. But our mission was to drill an ice core there and extract what we hoped would be a thousand-year record. It ends up that we drilled to 300 meters, which got us a 500-year, annually resolved, record. So once we collected all the ice, we needed – we couldn’t take it back to McMurdo right away, because they weren’t ready to receive it, as they had no way to keep it cold. So what we did is we loaded it onto the C-130 and took all the ice to South Pole. And we stored it at South Pole until the Green Wave, which was the big cargo ship, came in and the ice was able to be put in the freezers on the Green Wave. So then in ’86, I went back to South Pole on my way out to Plateau Remote, which was a remote field camp that we put in near what was the old Plateau Station, which was a station where they had put in a very high meteorological tower – it was a remote station put in specifically for meteorological observations. It only ran for two years, I think as it was too expensive to support. They did winter over there. It’s a very challenging location. Like, our daytime temperature when we were there for six weeks was -40. And when you’re in a remote field camp, you don’t use fire except in your cooking tent, and that would be your Coleman stove. Because if you get a fire and burn down your tent, you have no place to sleep and survive so they come and get you immediately. And nobody wants to be pulled out as you want to get your field project done. So that was a very, very challenging project. But the people who wintered over had to deal with like, -80 and -90 wintertime temperature.
What was the rationale behind moving your fieldwork to all these different sites?
Because – I guess you could say, what would be the point of just continuously drilling an ice core at South Pole? We didn’t have many ice cores from the continent at the time. In the early ’80s, there were probably just a handful of cores to characterize the climate and environment (but mainly the climate, because there’s not much environment), of a continent the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined. And again, not bragging but just stating the truth, it was much easier for the National Science Foundation to keep the scientists working at permanent stations. And so their preference would be to constantly work at permanent stations, but for the science, we needed to get out and collect records from other parts of the continent, from different geographical regions on the continent. At that time the U.S. only had 5 permanent stations (South Pole, Siple, McMurdo, Byrd, and Palmer). You could not drill ice cores at two them (McMurdo and Palmer). The other limiting factor on that was at the time the U.S. Antarctic Research Program was supported by the U.S. Navy, and the squadron was called the VXE-6. And the flyboys, as we called them, didn’t really like the open field for a variety of reasons, some very valid. One is that the Hercules – the only way that you can work in the open field was with the ski-equipped LC-130 – has a nose ski that is very fragile, and the other two back skis are also prone to breaking. So they like to land on a prepared runway. So where do you get a prepared runway? At the stations, where you’ve got heavy equipment like a D-6, D-8 or D-10 that can work (smooth) the surface constantly. So they don’t like open field landings. When we were going to do the Plateau Remote project, they actually had the two pilots who were going to be putting us in come to Ohio State to discuss the logistics. I was the team leader, by the way. I’ve always been the team leader on every project except my first one. And “team leader” means that you write the proposal to justify the science. The NSF provides the logistical support, but the team leader is in charge of picking the team, getting the team together, essentially everything from selecting the food, making decisions, down to: are you going to have alcohol at your camp? I was known as the “no alcohol camp.”
[laughs] Oh, really?
Yeah. So –
Why is that?
Well, number one, I don’t drink. And number two, I had plenty of experiences in 1982 at South Pole, seeing what life was like when people drank too much, and it was not pleasant. And when you’re running a remote field camp, you need everybody on 100%, you know, running on all cylinders, and being as cognizant and sharp as possible, because when you’re working around drilling equipment, things can go wrong. And if something goes wrong, and you have to have a medevac, they may just take you out. And of course, you don’t want a medevac because the poor person could be severely injured as well. I don’t think – my personal opinion is alcohol and remote ice core drilling don’t mix.
Seems reasonable. [laughs]
Inadvertently we broke my rule in 2010 on the Bruce Plateau in the Antarctic Peninsula because one member of my team (I was the only woman) was having a birthday while we were going to be there. Another guy knew that, and he brought in cans of beer in his luggage. So I actually have a photograph of all of us, even me – but I don’t drink – holding a can of beer and toasting one of our field team members in our tent on the Antarctic Peninsula. But that was rare. Anyway, so NSF was so concerned about the remote field project that we were going to run in 1986, they had the two pilots come meet with me here, right in the room right down the hall. So the pilots came, and we talked about every little aspect of the project. We talked about weights and cubes. You know, what weight they were going to allow me to have when we landed and how long they wanted to be on the ground offloading. This is all time from when we hit the ground, they open up the back ramp, and we start offloading – because there’s no Caterpillar, there’s nothing, it’s all offloaded by hand. We only had short amount of time so we had to break into two teams: a team getting stuff off, a team setting up a tent and starting our camp which means starting our stove, getting up one tent and making radio contact with South Pole Station. This is because they could not leave us until we had a tent, a fire going and a working radio.
That was policy?
Policy. Also, because of the potential damage to the skis, they were very concerned about the weight of what I needed to take in to do the job. Not just us, our food, our camping gear, the drill, and all the core boxes and core tubes, but they were also concerned about the weight of the fuel that we needed. Those 55-gallon drums of fuel are very heavy, and they were – in essence, what put us overweight for an open field landing. So working together, we came up with the idea of doing essentially, an air-drop, where you have cargo with parachutes strapped to it. You pick your site, you circle, then you tighten your circle to your location, then you drop the back ramp and out goes all the lumber that we needed, all the fuel, all the food. It all went out the back. We then went back to South Pole and loaded up with everything else – because we didn’t land.
So you never got out? You just dumped your stuff out the back?
Yeah, because we couldn’t land. We couldn’t carry everything on one flight. So the one flight did the air drop. We went back to South Pole, then we loaded up all our gear, ourselves, whatever we didn’t take, whatever we didn’t airdrop, we went back, and they loaded offloaded us. It was interesting. It took us a while to find the location because of the nature of navigation at the time – we didn’t have GPS. Everything was by inertial navigation, which is not very good, frankly. So we spent quite a bit of time circling, looking, “flying the grid,” as they call it. Flying the grid, and part of the problem is that the parachutes are white. Snow’s white, right? The only thing dark on the surface was really the dark drums, because the wood is brown, it’s not black. So it took a while, but ultimately, we found the site. And then, because we didn’t know how long it was going to take us to find the site, they went out heavy, which means they filled everything that could hold fuel with fuel. In other words, we were on full with the jet fuel. But once we found the site, then they didn’t want to land any heavier than they had to, so we went off away from the site and jettisoned most of the jet fuel. They came back, they landed, and they kept just enough fuel to get back to South Pole.
So they landed, we got out, offloaded. One team offloaded, one team set up the tent, got the fire going, and made radio contact. As soon as that happened, man, they were out of there. They were, you know, history. And you never shut off the engines - I mean, the plane was running the whole time. And I can tell you, trying to offload and work behind four propeller engines on a snow surface where that wind is just churning the snow as they’re idling, was hard on our lungs, and you know, of course you’re freezing. It was very, very challenging.
How were your research methods changing between – I guess throughout the 1980s you were still doing ice cores…
Did you continue to bring drillers…
…and do similar studies…
…just different locations?
Yeah, yeah, up until the ’90s. So essentially the drill we used in 1982 was larger than the drills we used in ’85 and ’86. I would say the drilling technology made a major advance in those three years, and using an epoxy composite, particularly for the tower. And going from cable – that was like a metal cable that was quite thick, maybe like over an inch in diameter, but you needed that for all the conductors and everything that must be inside – number one, a shorter tower, a tower that was lighter, made of an epoxy composite, and a cable that was probably on the order of probably 3/8 of an inch in diameter made of Kevlar. Kevlar revolutionized ice core drilling between 1982 and ’85. So the drills we took to Siple and to Plateau Remote in ’85 and ’86 were much lighter. I mean, they’re tremendously heavy compared to what we use now. I mean, our drills today are way, way lighter. Our project in the Antarctic Peninsula at the place called Bruce Plateau in 2010 was essentially put in with everything we needed except all of our core boxes - with maybe half of our core boxes - our camp, everything we needed, our drill, our fuel – in two Twin Otters. And then later, like a week later, they came back, and they brought some more food and some more boxes and some more core tubes, and a few more barrels of fuel. But it’s just night and day between now and what we were doing in the ’80s, and what we were doing it with.
When I spoke to you last summer, you emphasized that it was in the ’80s – things are always changing, but that during the ’80s, the whole program changed in a lot of different aspects.
It did. A lot of different aspects. I mean, many more women were starting to come. That was great.
Why do you think that is?
Women were graduating. They had Ph.D.’s and they were competent. There was no reason that they couldn’t lead their field teams and do great science, and it’s like, well, why wouldn’t you send them? And I think part of it was the early demonstration that women could lead field teams, and women did just fine. And the big concern, early on, as with the Lois Jones and Eileen McSaveney group, they kept that group away from the men because they were worried about the potential for sexual encounters, either wanted or not wanted. Probably they were most concerned about the “not wanted” encounters, which can happen anywhere. I mean, you don’t have to be in Antarctica to have something like that happen, as we’ve seen. So I think it was the demonstration that men and women could work in mixed-sex field teams and do just fine. And the fact that it happened, and it was happening over and over again, and it was successful made a strong case. When I first went to South Pole, 1982, I wasn’t allowed to live out in the field camp. I had to live under the dome under the watchful eye of the station manager, and my roommate was the only other woman on site, who was a carpenter. So there were only two women at South Pole for the summer in 1982. Actually including the cook, there were three of us. And the cook was with her husband, and they shared a berthing area together.
Do you remember the name of your roommate?
No, I’d have to go to my field book.
Were the guys in field camp in tents, or were they just in a like a Jamesway?
Jamesways. I went out to the Jamesways, because like my team had its own Jamesway, so I would go out and socialize with them. The station manager wasn’t real thrilled about it, but I mean, he couldn’t really tell me not to. But just straight up front, I’ve never had a problem, ever. And I’ve been around. Many of the men at South Pole were drinking a lot. I saw a lot of what I would call excessive drinking and moderate drunkenness at South Pole. And primarily, among people who were operating heavy equipment. You don’t operate heavy equipment under the influence of alcohol. And I saw enough of that. But the interesting thing is, no matter how drunk they were, they were always respectful. Very respectful. Never a problem. Never felt threatened, never felt uncomfortable. And I think it was because everybody knew that regardless of what you were doing, we were all there for one thing, and that was the mission. And everybody had a job, and the mission could only succeed if people did their jobs. And a lot of them wanted to come back. A lot of people get the real bug, and you get paid well. And I met a lot of people who, you know, work six months of the year down there, and then spend it all the next six months traveling. And if it works for them, I mean, that’s great. Whatever you want to do. It’s not my business. But they wanted to come back, and there were many, many repeats. And if you have an incident or you’re involved in an incident, or you’re drunk and you get hurt, you will not be coming back. So there was a personal motivation on most everybody’s part, that the team of which you were a member was successful.
Are there any other ways that you would characterize the program and the research in the ’80s? Anything else that you noticed changing?
Yeah. I think – again, more women, better equipment. Another is better field gear. The boots and a lot of the clothing that we were issued in 1982 would be a joke today. I mean, by 1986, polypropylene was in. They were working with that. Now that’s a joke. We’ve got so much better fabrics. So I saw the field gear improve. The National Science Foundation was, I felt – others may have another opinion – but I was very supportive of inclusion, including women, and particularly Peter Wilkniss. I don’t know if you’ve run across that name. People have different opinions of Peter Wilkniss, and other prior polar program directors. Currently the Office of Polar Programs’ Director is a woman. I worked under many directors. Peter Wilkniss was probably the first to start opening doors, I think, for women. And I always appreciated that. He had me chair his executive committee, which I don’t know if I was the first woman chair of the executive committee, but I certainly wasn’t the last. Robin Bell has done that. There have been a number of women who have chaired the OPP executive committee. I think it was just a culture change at the National Science Foundation that made the real difference – that plus improved technology. Also, I’ll have to say that flying with the Air Force is a little better than flying with the Navy, and I don’t know if anybody’s mentioned that. But the Air Force – and I like the Navy, and I thought they had fantastic pilots – but I felt that the Air Force pilots were more committed to the mission. And the lot of the VXE-6 pilots didn’t really want to be there. I got the sense that for them it was just an assignment. And the Air force pilots who fly out of Schenectady want to go, and it makes all the difference.
So throughout the ’80s, you’re not just in Antarctica. You’re also working your way up at – it’s still called IPS at the time?
Yes, and I – and also in the ’80s, I started working in Greenland.
Oh, wow. Okay.
Tell me about that.
Well, I’ll make that really brief.
Because it’s all the same people. I worked with the same people over and over. I mean, the people who went to – just go back to Antarctica for a minute – the people who were on my field team at Bruce Plateau in 2010, I’ve worked with before in the field, with one exception. But Lonnie had worked with him in the field for like 15 years. So on my field team, I had Vladimir Mikhalenko, who’s worked with Lonnie now for probably 25 years, and I’ve known him for 25 years. Benjamin Vicencio, who runs his own outfitting company in the Andes and out of Huaraz in Peru, supports all of Lonnie’s work in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. He’s gone to the Himalayas with Lonnie. Never been to Antarctica, and I thought, you know, Benjamin deserves a trip to Antarctica. And he’s fantastic, so I took him. I took a young man who was more of an alpinist from Italy, but he was here as a visiting scholar, so I took [the] young man, Roberto Filippi. And then there was Victor Zagorodnov, who was our engineer/glaciologist, who’s drilled – he just retired a couple years ago. He designs and fabricates our drills and works with the machinist who fabricates our drills. So he was with us. And then the National Science Foundation, or the NSF contractor, Raytheon, sent a field camp manager. I had never had a field camp manager before, so that was really great. So he took care of all the radio, the comms, the cooking - he did almost all the cooking. In the past we’d all have to decide who’s going to cook today? That means you leave the drill tent a little bit early and that makes them be short-handed.
So anyway, the bottom line is that I work with the same people over and over and over again. And a comment that was made – it was very interesting. When Lonnie was drilling on Kilimanjaro (I was not there; that was in 2000, Vladimir was there, Victor was there), the news team that came up to do the interview and do filming were astounded at how quiet it was in the drill tent. And it was quiet because everybody knew what they were supposed to do. Nobody had to say, “Oh, hand me that whatever,” or, “Let’s bag the core.” Everybody was just working. They said they couldn’t believe how quiet it was, and that’s kind of the way it is when you have a team like that. You don’t waste a lot of time. You can work really efficiently. And I wanted to say – the point I meant to make was, when we went to Bruce Plateau, I told you we were put in in two Twin Otters, with everything we needed. We drilled 448 meters. When we went to South Pole in 1982, it took a complete C-130 to bring in our stuff, and we only drilled like 328 meters. And we were there two months. We were at Bruce Plateau 42 days.
On-site, 42 days. Drilled to bedrock, 448 meters with stuff that came in two Twin Otters. So it was a big difference, you know, over the situation two and a half to three decades. So what was I doing in between? Essentially, working with the data that we got from the ice cores, putting ice core records together, and working with Lonnie on his records. My principal thing is data analysis, and I was also doing a lot of graphing. And again, not bragging, but I’m a pretty good writer, and I’m an excellent editor. Everybody likes me to edit their papers [laughs], believe it or not. So a lot of writing of manuscripts and revisions of manuscripts, writing proposals to keep our team funded. I’ve been involved in 53 proposals to a federal agency. I’ve had NASA funding, NOAA funding, and NSF funding, principally. And Lonnie has been involved in about 60 proposals, 50-plus of those we’re both on. And he has about four or five that I guess I’m not on, because he told me he had 60, and I know precisely I have 53.
And you joined the faculty here in –
Eighty – ’91.
Did you have teaching responsibilities?
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. So I started in 1991 as an associate professor. It took a while to negotiate that because I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go and join the faculty. I’d been a research scientist for 12 years, so I was kind of used to research just being everything that I did. And I wasn’t sure how I could take on faculty responsibilities, which would be teaching and mentoring of students, and keep up the level of research that I was used to having. I negotiated 50% research/teaching load, so 50% of my time would be research, and 50% would be faculty duties, teaching and service. So what I ended up doing was one and a half jobs, 100% research, and 50% teaching. [laughs]
Oh, yeah. I mean, I never let up. All you have to do is look at how many proposals and papers have come out since 1991 [compared] to prior to ’91 to see there was no let-up. And I enjoy teaching. I’ve had graduate students. I did take a few students with me to Antarctica.
Well, you never know how students are going to do, and every warm body is critical to the team. You can’t take extra people, at least, you used to not be able to take extra people because budgets were so tight. So everybody has to be, you know, able to do the job. I did take two students with me to Antarctica, and I have to think – but it was in the early ’90s, and it was for a project only at South Pole. It was not a remote field camp. And interestingly, one of the students was my student. His name is Brian Mark. He’s now a full professor in our department here. And he did his master’s with me but went off to Syracuse and did his Ph.D. with Jeff Seltzer. And his Ph.D. was in earth science. Now he runs his own projects. He’s very involved in working in the Andes, and with glacier retreat, and what that means to water resources, and what that means to the people in the area. And he runs one of the research teams here at Byrd Polar. It’s called the Glacier Environment Research Group.
So you’re working a job and a half, and also raising a child. How did you –
That’s all I did. No hobbies, no anything extra. And Lonnie and I shared the child duties, so when I was in Antarctica, he was here being both father and mother, and in the summers when he was in either South America or Tanzania or Himalaya, or wherever, then I was mother and father. So she grew up to be quite independent. When I went to Antarctica for the first time, that was 1982, she was already 6 years old. So her days were in school and you really just had the evenings to deal with, and she had homework, and I had homework. We’d sometimes do homework together.
[laughs] Did you and Lonnie find it hard to be away, or were you – do you get used to it?
Well, eventually you get used to it. I cried a lot in 1982 when I – that was my first long separation from my daughter. It was really very sad, and part of the problem is the communication was so poor. There was no internet, so there was no email. And the only thing you got were letters, so when a plane came in up from McMurdo to South Pole, you know, work stopped, and everybody waited until the mail was sorted to see if you got any mail, because mail didn’t come every day. And you got to call home once every two weeks using a ham operator, and you had five minutes. And that was it. So it was very hard being separated from her. Lonnie and I, we got used to being separated. I think he went to – he went to Mount Kenya when she was six or eight weeks old. And so he never really let up on his high mountain work.
So I wonder in our remaining time, for at least this meeting, if you could reflect on your work in the ’90s and how research changed, and research agendas, methods, that kind of thing.
Well, by the end of the ’80s – yeah, in 1988, we began testing some of the lighter-weight drills in Greenland. That’s how I got started working in Greenland. So I worked at the old Dye 3, one of the DEW Line stations, the Dye 3 camp. We were running a drill test, but we were also collecting ice cores, so I was part of that. So yeah, in the late ’80s, we were really slimming down the weight, working on cutters – a lot of work on cutters so that the quality of the core that we collected would be much better. Working drill fluids. When you’re using a thermal drill, you have to use a fluid. You know, what were the best fluids? Some of the old fluids were very carcinogenic, you know, so that type of thing. Yeah. So it was just the natural evolution. It’s like looking at cars in the ’80s. Lonnie and I were just talking about – looking at our first car when we got married. It was a 1968 Pontiac Catalina with a 400 cubic-inch displacement motor. And four-speed Hurst shifter, and no power steering. And now, I drive a Prius that’s made out of some kind of very strong composite, but it’s not made out of steel. It’s just the natural evolution of technology. And those technological advances in other areas bled into the technological advances in drilling. It’s just like the Kevlar cable wasn’t developed for ice core drilling. I don’t know exactly who developed it and when, but you know, it’s very prevalent in combat helmets for our soldiers, and body armor, and racing tires. [It was developed in 1965 by Stephanie Kwolek at DuPont.]
So by the end of the ’90s, you had almost 20 years of field research.
Can you reflect on what you were finding, and where you were applying it. I know you said you were involved in grassroots climate change action and that kind of thing. In the ’90s, people are starting to talk about this more in politics.
Well, my involvement in that probably began in 1985 when I had the great fortune – and I emphasize great – fortune to be asked to become a member of the Board on Global Change that was run by the National Academy of Sciences, and it was chaired by Ralph Cicerone (deceased) who eventually became the president of the National Academy of Sciences. He’s the immediate past president. I met people whom I would call luminaries in the global climate change arena such as Steve Schneider, Piers Sellers, Jack Eddy, Bob Kates, and many others. There were only two women on the board, and the other woman was Margaret Davis. She’s a very well-known biologist. This experience was transformational for me. And so we wrote what’s called “The Gold Book,” which motivated the academy to really think about global change with an emphasis on climate change. One of its important products was the ultimate formation of the U.S. Global Change Research Program that is now funded by about 13 to 15 agencies. It puts out the U.S. National Climate Assessment that’s completed every four years. The Board on Global Change concluded “this is significant. It’s important enough that we need to form a standing body that can mentor this activity for decades in the future.” Not long after that, I was asked to be a member of the Polar Research Board, which is also run by the National Academy. I’ve been on that as well as a number of its Committees. In 2009 I was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, but that started back in 1985 or ’86 when I was asked to join the NAS’ Board on Global Change. I believe Margaret either joined the team when I did, or she was on it one year before I was. But it was two women and about 12 or 13 men. And we just made a great team. I mean, it was really a fantastic experience. So that was very professionally transformative. And that continued as I have been on many different Academy studies. I was just on one a few years ago with Robin Bell and others who worked on a research plan for the Arctic. My engagement with the Academy continues today. But the field work went on just the same, until after 1995 when I went from 1995 to 2010 with no field work.
And that’s a five years – the longest hiatus I had from field work and now it’s 2018, so I’m eight years out from my last field program. Now, I’ve gone to Peru with Lonnie, to the Quelccaya Ice Cap. But I was not the field team leader, and I’m not at my age (I’m turning 70 in May) – I’m not running up ahead of the people who are in their 30s and 40s.
Your 2010 project, that was part of the LARISSA project?
Yes, it was.
Can you tell me about that?
Well, LARISSA was actually one of numerous projects that were funded as part of the Third International Polar Year. And it was really the brainchild of a small group of people. I was not part of the small group of people. And this was a team of people who had worked together on prior projects. The included Eugene Domack, who is now deceased. Amy Leventer at Colgate. Ted Scambos at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Julia Wellner at the University of Texas and others. They were the principals who had the idea of bringing together an interdisciplinary – and, where possible, international – team of scientists to characterize the environment of the Antarctic Peninsula. So it included people who would study the ocean sediments, so the Nathaniel B. Palmer was there supporting drilling, dredging, and seismic work. There were a lot of different activities ongoing. There were people – I think Greg Balco was leading the people who were trying to do radiometric dating so they were collecting rocks. So they would take a helicopter off the Nathaniel B. and hop over to outcrops and take samples that could come back to the lab to do geomagnetic work and dating work, and then Ted, who was also involved with the helicopter – and Eugene, I think, was also involved – putting GPS units out as part of POLENET, the big POLENET. There were people studying the wildlife, so experts on penguins and seals, who were part of it. So it was kind of like a scientific assault on the Antarctic Peninsula and everything that lives there. So we had botanists, biologists, sedimentologists, hard rock geologists, soft sediment geologists, glaciologists, geodesists and then our small ice drilling team. So we were the ice team, and then then there was another ice team, a glaciological team, that included Ted Scambos – he was the lead – and Erin Pettit. Have you come across Erin? So Erin was part of that. There were a few others who were part of his team who were mapping, like using radio echo sounding to map the basal topography of some of the outlet glaciers from the Bruce Plateau. They also went in ahead of us and did a mapping of the basal topography on the Bruce Plateau, and their data helped us select our drill site. It was very, very critical where we sited the drill site, because once you start building the camp and drilling, it’s too late to say, “Oh, we chose the wrong spot.” So they went in like a week or two ahead of us. Then we all met in Punta Arenas. They came back up to Punta Arenas, brought their data. I remember sitting at the hotel, and we were looking at all the graphs that they had made of both the surface and the basal topography and choosing our drill site. And then we didn’t see them again until much later on the Bruce Plateau. We then left and were eventually put into the field on New Year’s Eve. We were always stationary at that site. They were out on the Nathaniel B. working different locations, and then toward the end, they came up. They were actually helicoptered into their site. And when they came to our site, they used our SkiDoo to go out and do some of their work, because we really didn’t need the SkiDoo all the time. The day we left the drill site (February 7, 2010) we were all finished. We’d cleared everything and had it all out on the cargo line. We were just waiting for the Twin Otters to come get us. When the Twin Otters arrived to pick us up they brought in Ted’s team to install to put up an AMIGO tower, which is like a high specialized meteorological tower that has GPS and all kinds of instruments on it. He had many projects on LARISSA, but this was his final project. An instrument on the tower measured the change in the height of the snow surface which would give him accumulation. There were instruments that measured the wind, temperature, humidity at different levels above the surface so you could do vertical profiling. And what was interesting – and we could have told them this, but we didn’t know it when we went in – but the accumulation rate on Bruce Plateau was astronomical. I’ve never ever worked in a place that has more blowing and drifting snow, and we were hit by storms constantly. I mean, visibility was usually zero, and it could go from 100 to 0 in 15 or 20 minutes. Thus we never took the SkiDoo and went more than 20 minutes’ ride away from camp, because you could be caught in a whiteout, like almost with the blink of an eye. Anyway, Ted’s plan was that the Amigo station would survive the year. He'd come back later in the year and collect the data. Well, he was also telemetering the data to a satellite, but not all of it. And he would come back in, and they would add sections to the tower, and we would have a monitoring station there. It quit operating in late May or early June because the snow surface had already risen to the top of the tower.
Yeah. And it’s still sitting there. He actually got a Twin Otter flight I think the next year and tried to find it, and they never found it – they just couldn’t find it.
And this all had to do with the Larsen ice shelves?
Yeah, it’s all part of LARISSA. So it was a great project, but I have to give a lot of credit to Eugene Domack, Ted, Julia, Amy and Scott Ishman for maintaining the momentum, because the idea of LARISSA was born at least 10 years earlier at a workshop that was held at Hamilton College, which is where Eugene was a professor. It was a Chapman conference, sponsored by the American Geophysical Union and that is where Eugene brought all these people together to discuss what we could do in the Antarctic Peninsula as a team that would be truly meaningful and have a tremendous scientific legacy? And it took over 10 years for that to become a reality. The proposal was written in 2008 or so. And the execution was late 2009 and early 2010. I was truly thrilled to be a part of the LARISSA Project.
Yeah. So you had one more question.
The last thing I wanted to ask you about is being Director of the Byrd Center.
It’s been a joy. It’s interesting. I’m a little different from all the other directors, not only because I’m the first and only woman to be the director of the center, but I’m the first director who – well, let me put it this way – of the directors of the modern era, I am the one who was not hired from the outside, and I never changed my official university title, meaning I never stepped down as a professor and took on a senior executive role because I never expected to be in the position this long. I’ve been the director now for eight, probably almost nine, years. And the situation was that the prior director, Berry Lyons, and the director before him, Ken Jezek, were both hired from the outside and came in with the formal title and a more executive position. They were both professors in the School of Earth Science. Berry was appointed or asked if he would take over being Director of the School of Earth Science, and he’d been our director for probably seven or eight years. Usually, it’s a four-year term, so he had done almost two full four-year terms, and he said he would. So what happened is we had a search. The search failed for a variety of reasons I won’t go into. Not that we didn’t have fantastic candidates. And it was a woman. But it failed. And here we are in 2008, or 2009, directorless, and coming up on the 50th anniversary of the center – of the institute, essentially. And the vice president for research said, you know, “We really can’t have all the festivities and everything for the 50th anniversary and not have a director. Would you consider doing it for a short time while we can mount another search and get a real director?” Let’s get a real director. (She didn’t use that term. She was too politically correct. She would never have said that. I said that). But the university was reeling from the financial crisis of the 2008 period. And so I took over as director. And I think the fact that they know I’m passionate about the center – and I guess I must have done a reasonably good job, because each year it was like, “Well, can you do it one more year? Because we can’t really afford to hire from the outside right now. Funds are tight.” And then – but as funds got better and better, we did start searching two years ago for a new director from the outside. Unfortunately, we found a person we thought was an excellent candidate, but that didn’t work out. As you know, you don’t always get to hire the person you want to hire for a variety of reasons. So then they mounted a second search, but it failed. So I’ve been the de facto director, but I love it. And it’s a great group of people. The job, in my opinion, is not onerous. I mean, it’s very enjoyable. When you come to work, and you’re with just fantastic people, it just makes your day. Everybody here is passionate about the center and its mission which is based on excellent scholarship, excellent student mentoring, and outstanding public outreach. That’s really what the center is all about, and we all work every day as a team to achieve that. And it’s not just the staff here, it’s the scientists who are associated with the center such as Bryan Mark, Ian Howat, Michael Durand, and Terry Wilson who just make it a joy to be part of such – frankly, a nationally and internationally recognized – I would say an illustrious – research organization. The role of the director is to do his or her best to provide the resources as you can. Kind of read that like: weasel the resources out of the administration to support the center, such that the people who are doing the real research, including our team, the ice core paleoclimate team, have what they need to be successful. So you know, they always say, “A good leader empowers the people that he or she leads to become the best or do the best that they possibly can.” And that’s the way I’ve tried to serve the center. We will, we think, have a new director in the next few months. It will be another person appointed from the inside. I’m not at liberty to say a name because I don’t even know if the negotiations have begun or not.
And what will you do next?
Oh, go back to being exactly what I was: a researcher and a faculty member. Then I will have one full-time job [laughs], which is research, teaching, and service. Yea!
That’s a wonderful note to end on…
…unless there’s anything else you’d like to add.
Nope. I had a wonderful time. It was actually great to revisit a little bit of that history.
I’m glad. I really enjoyed it, too. Thank you so much.