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How I Got to the Chilean Antarctic as a Working Biologist

Perhaps similarly to many of you reading this, one of my lifelong dreams has been to go to Antarctica. I can’t say why exactly, as many other adventurous dreams are a hard pass for me (space, deep ocean, caves, Whole Foods… thanks so much, but no) but Antarctica has been calling my name since I was young (or as I called it as a kid “Aunt Arctica”). I was ready to clean toilets and scrub floors, but since I am a biologist for a living I wanted to at least attempt to get there as a working scientist. I study the sense of temperature in polar fish, and Antarctic fish are especially fascinating as they live most of their lives below the freezing point of water. Currently, I work at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as a postdoctoral fellow. Since about 2015, I’ve been actively working towards getting out to the field in Antarctica, but it turns out it isn’t particularly simple. One needs to be named for a spot on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to go to a US Antarctic station, usually about a year ahead of time. This was tricky but then became functionally impossible after COVID, as NSF has stated that there are very few spots available for new summer field work until the end of the decade

The beautiful Harpagifer antarcticus, a common Antarctic fish. Photo: Julia York

Don’t despair! It turns out, that many countries have Antarctic programs and there are other sources of grant money. Here, I’d like to tell you a bit about my experience going to Antarctica with the Chilean Antarctic Institute via a Fulbright Scholar grant. 

First off, the Fulbright program is an international exchange program funded by the US State Department. Typically, they fund professionals to go abroad to teach or do research for around four months, the goal is to foster international collaborations and cultural exchange. They provide money to buy a plane ticket and a salary to pay for the cost of living abroad. The great thing about a Fulbright is that it gives you a lot of freedom, both in what you choose to do during your program and how you spend your time. This wonderful level of flexibility supports cultural exchange by allowing you to say yes to opportunities to collaborate or present as they arise on the ground. For example, I helped a fellow lab member by collecting some data for a project she needed to finish, edited English translations for other colleagues, presented a poster at Antarctica Day in Valdivia, gave interviews for the media, and presented a talk to the Chilean military. Typical grants might not allow time for extra work to be added, but because Fulbright’s goal is inter-cultural exchange, it gives you the freedom to conduct that work as you see fit.

In this case, I applied for the Fulbright Chile Astronomy and Antarctic studies program. The key to this application is a letter of invitation to Antarctica from a Chilean scientist. I was able to find a connection through cold emailing, wrote up an application, and about six months later was approved to go to Chile later that year. I arrived in Chile with some rusty Spanish which did not serve me particularly well as Chileans speak Spanish very fast and with a lot of slang. Regardless, the Chileans I met were incredibly friendly, welcoming, and patient with my blank stares. I worked for about two months in Valdivia, which is an exceptionally beautiful coastal place where three rivers meet and run together into the ocean before I headed south to Punta Arenas in late December to be ready for deployment to Antarctica in early January. Before we left, we were given jackets, outerwear, and an orientation on gender harassment and environmental awareness.

Antarctic fit check. Photo: Julia York

The Chileans claim “Y al Sur Chile Limita con el Polo,” basically meaning the Southern border of Chile is the South Pole. As part of that territorial claim, they maintain a network of Antarctic stations, some scientific and some military. I went to both the military Base O’Higgins located on the Antarctic Peninsula and the scientific Base Escudero on King George Island. I learned so much, saw four species of penguins, elephant seals, a leopard seal, and whales, rode a snowmachine into the peninsula, met the US Ambassador to Chile, ate a lot of birthday cake, and caught and dissected four species of Antarctic fish. Here are three takeaways.

First, the weather was not particularly cold (I was there in January, it was typically around freezing) but highly variable. One day it might be sunny and perfectly still and the next might have 60 mph winds making it hard to even walk. What surprised me more, however, was the variation in the water temperature. I carefully recorded the water temperature at every catch. One day the water might be +0.8°C and the next -1.0°C. While that might not seem like much, the Southern Ocean is famously stable in temperature, so these swings over short periods were unexpected. The Western Antarctic Peninsula is the fastest warming area in the Southern Hemisphere and heat waves are increasingly common so this variability is going to increase. 

Fishing with the Chilean military in a Zodiac. Photo: Edwin Vidal

Next, the logistics of Antarctic fieldwork are incredibly complex and impressive. I was amazed at how all of our equipment and ourselves were loaded into inflatable boats called Zodiacs, then the Galvarino (a Chilean navy vessel), and unloaded at O’Higgins using cranes. At both stations, there were great lab facilities including hoods, -80°C freezers, centrifuges, and even machines to sequence DNA. We had some issues with power at O’Higgins because the diesel storage had gotten some water in it, and when the power went down I went next door to the German station to run the centrifuge. It is thanks to the hard work of the logistics and support teams, and the collaborative survival culture in Antarctica, that science can be conducted at a high level in the remote field. 

O’Higgins Station with the Galvarino in the background. Photo: Julia York

Finally, there are so many Antarctic programs and stations with opportunities! At King George Island, the Chilean station was next door to a Russian Base, a Chinese Base, and across the bay from a Korean Base that were all regularly visited. If Chile isn’t your jam or your ideal collaboration, there are 33 countries with Antarctic programs. If Antarctica is a dream for you, keep at it, and don’t be afraid to look elsewhere for opportunities. 

The author on the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Eric Gaete.

About the Author:

Julia York

Postdoc at the University of Illinois

PhD in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior from UT Austin

Master's in Zoology from UBC

“I work on the evolution of temperature sensation in polar organisms through an integrative approach that spans genetics, physiology, neuroscience, and biophysics. I am interested in how temperature sensation works in organisms adapted to specific thermal habitats, and how it evolves as the climate changes.”

Land Acknowledgement:

The University of Illinois was founded through a land grant from the US government that was funded through the sale of nearly 500,000 acres of land which raised approximately $650,000 ($11.5 million adjusted for inflation) for which Indigenous communities were paid $15,000 (~$500,000 adjusted for inflation). To find out where the land was sold to establish the university and to learn more, check out:

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