To the Ends of the Earth

Antarctica is among the best places in the world to see the effects of climate change in action. Meet four women of the CSU whose work is taking them here on an urgent quest to find solutions.

Men have explored Antarctica in the name of science since the early 1900s, but it wasn't until 1955 that the first woman scientist set foot on Earth's most remote continent. In celebration of Women's History Month, we take a look at four remarkable women at the CSU currently making an impact w​ith their work in Antarctica.

Kathy Kasic | Sacramento State
Kathy Kasic
Photo courtesy of Billy Collins

"The feeling of discovering a lake together created a tight camaraderie that will stay with us for the rest of our lives."

— Kathy Kasic, Sacramento State film professor, of the expedition to explore a subglacial lake

Thousands of feet below the ice sheet of western Antarctica sits a lake that probably hasn't seen the light of day for over 100,000 years. But in January 2019, scientists from the Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA) project were able to access water and sediment samples from the ancient Subglacial Lake Mercer to explore its hidden ecosystem. 

Antarctica is home to a network of subglacial lakes and the SALSA project is only the second time researchers could use clean drilling techniques to obtain samples. (The first was the 2009-14 WISSARD project.)

Kathy Kasic, a Sacramento State film professor and cinematographer, was there to document this remarkable feat. In late January, Kasic returned from the six-week expedition and began work on a documentary that will tell the story of SALSA's successful exploration 4,000 feet beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.

The National Science Foundation-funded project included a team of 50 researchers and support staff who used hot water ice-drilling techniques to retrieve samples for further study. Scientists hope to learn what kinds of organisms once lived in the lake, the movement of water beneath the ice and how ice sheet dynamics will affect global sea level rise.

Drill and borehole

The SALSA hot water drill and borehole extend 3,500 feet down into the Antarctic Subglacial Lake Mercer. A high-powered UV light collar surrounds the hole to kill any microbes on science instruments that could contaminate the lake. Subglacial lakes are permanently cold and dark environments that could add to our understanding of the evolution of life in these extreme environments on Earth and other planets. Photo courtesy of Billy Collins

Kasic, one of 11 principal investigators (PIs) from eight U.S. institutions and one of only two female PIs, found the experience transformative: “The feeling of discovering a lake together, thousands of feet beneath the surface of the ice, reaching into the darkness to shine light on the hidden secrets of our planet, created a tight camaraderie that will stay with us for the rest of our lives," says Kasic, a former biologist, of the trip. 

Kasic's hour-long PBS documentary about the expedition will air sometime in 2020.  Starting in October 2019, the SALSA website will show Kasic's two shorter films about the expedition, and PBS Learning Media will host educational materials created by Kasic.

Tents on the ice

SALSA researchers camped in tents on the ice, which often became drifted over with snow during high winds. The sun shines through the night during Antarctica's summer, so the tents actually stayed warm, says Kathy Kasic. Photo courtesy of Billy Collins

The researchers collected a 5.5-foot core

SALSA is the first project to use a gravity corer to sample deep sediment cores from a subglacial lake. The researchers collected a 5.5-foot core from 3,500 feet below the ice, making it the largest core ever sampled from a subglacial lake. Photo courtesy of Billy Collins

Dr. Gitte McDonald | CSU Moss Landing Marine Laboratories
Dr. Gitte McDonald
Photo courtesy of Greg Marshall

"Our research on the ecology and physiology of Antarctic predators such as penguins helps us predict how these animals will respond to a changing climate."

— Dr. Gitte McDonald, professor, CSU Moss Landing Marine Laboratories

When Birgitte (Gitte) McDonald, Ph.D. heads to Antarctica in October 2019, it will mark her 12th time to the coldest continent. She has studied seals, sea lions and birds; her upcoming expedition will focus on the feeding habits of the emperor penguin. Dr. McDonald is an assistant professor of vertebrate ecology at the CSU's Moss Landing Marine Labs, a research consortium supported by seven CSU campuses, with San José State​ as the administrative campus. She and graduate student Parker Forman will join a collaborative field expedition funded by National Geographic and others to the western Ross Sea, the world's largest marine preserve.​

“This study fills important knowledge gaps on [caloric intake], diet, foraging strategy and habitat use of emperor penguins during a critical time," explains McDonald, who received her master's from Sonoma State. “By studying animals in extreme environments we can learn more about their physiological limits." 

Knowing how animals survive in the Antarctic helps scientists predict, and possibly mitigate, how they're affected by climate change.  

Observing an emperor penguin

Dr. Birgitte McDonald observes an emperor penguin during an Antarctic expedition in 2010.  Photo courtesy of P. Ponganis

At the Vertebrate Ecology Lab, McDonald serves as primary mentor to eight students, including six women. Her goal is to give students experience with a wide range of field and lab work, analysis and communication, all of which they get to practice when sharing their work at lab meetings and professional conferences.

In summer 2019, Dr. McDonald will begin blogging about her upcoming expedition on the Moss Landing Marine Labs' site .

Dr. Kerry Nickols | CSU Northridge
Dr. Kerry Nickols
Photo courtesy of Melania Guerra

"Being down there and connecting with nature and being inspired by other women, I learned how to be optimistic. We have to solve climate change because there’s no other option."

— Dr. Kerry Nickols, CSU Northridge biology professor, of Homeward Bound women’s leadership expedition

On January 24, 2019, Kerry Nickols, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at CSU Northridge, flew back to Los Angeles after a 20-day journey to Antarctica aboard the ship MV Ushuaia. Dr. Nickols was part of Homeward Bound, an all-women leadership program that included 80 women from 27 countries in various STEM fields.

Nickols, whose research focuses on marine-protected areas and how they're affected by climate change, found the expedition eye-opening. Sadly, Antarctica is one place where it's easy to see climate change at work. One powerful example for Nickols was witnessing thousands of Adélie penguins, a species threatened by climate change, nesting on Paulette Island. Other populations of these birds have been pushed out of their habitats further south due to changing sea ice conditions that affect their nesting grounds.

Group picture

While Dr. Kerry Nickols has long worked to mitigate climate change, the Homeward Bound experience reinvigorated her resolve. “It felt like we were really trying to make change tangible. I feel more connected to the future of the planet and more empowered to make a difference," Nickols says, adding that she now has a bigger support network and a better understanding of the global scale of both environmental problems and solutions. Photo courtesy of Sofia Oiseth

“Being down there and connecting with nature and being inspired by other women…I learned how to be optimistic," says Nickols. “We have to solve climate change because there's no other option."

Back at CSUN, the leadership training she received has made the biologist think more about the ways she mentors and communicates with her students. “I want to be the most constructive and effective leader I can be," she says, adding that Homeward Bound helped reinvigorate her passion for conducting science that serves a greater purpose—a commitment she shares with her students.

“Many of us [in Homeward Bound] felt like we were blown open. It's hard not to feel that way when you're in Antarctica. It's just such a compelling place to be. It's hard not to feel like you want to do something more when you're there."

Dr. Heather Liwanag | Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Seal pups
Image taken under NMFS permit #21006

"My research experience in Antarctica taught me so many things… You can learn a lot about yourself when you are working crazy long, hard days."

— Emma Weitzner, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo graduate student, of baby Weddell seal research

Heather Liwanag, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, spends a lot of her time in Antarctica with adorable baby Weddell seals, but she's not there to play. The research she and her team are doing should tell us more about how these young seals grow into champion divers, even in such extreme conditions.

“These animals are an important piece of the Antarctic ecosystem, which is the last near-pristine ecosystem on Earth. Understanding their development will help us to get a better understanding of polar seals in general, all of which are threatened by climate change," says Dr. Liwanag. 

The transition from pup to adult is the most critical time for the animals' survival, and Liwanag wants to find out how these pups stay warm and develop their ability to dive.

In 2017, Liwanag and her team, which included Cal Poly graduate student Emma Weitzner, spent 10 weeks observing pups at McMurdo Station, the largest research station in Antarctica. Liwanag also returned for more pup research in the fall of 2019.

Dr. Heather Liwanag

Dr. Heather Liwanag and her team monitored and named their first group of seal pups during the fall  2017 expedition. Working with each pup week after week, the scientists got to know their unique personalities.

Researcher  Emma Weitzner

Tracking down seal pups for sampling can be complicated. In 2017, graduate student researcher Emma Weitzner blogged about a case of mistaken seal pup identity on the project's website

Weitzner, who earned her master's in spring 2019, is now pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative physiology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “My research experience in Antarctica taught me so many things, from how to work well in a small team in harsh conditions to how to draw blood from a seal and even how to change the spark plugs in a snowmobile! You can learn a lot about yourself when you are working crazy long, hard days."

Liwanag's advice for women interested in pursuing science? “Keep pushing forward. Take every opportunity you can, even if it's not exactly what you think you want to do. In science, being passionate and excited about asking questions and learning new things is what keeps you going, even when times are tough." 

Visit Growing Up On Ice , the project's website, to learn more and see more adorable baby seal photographs. 

Story: Hazel Kelly


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