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Olivia Williams: Of Chronologies and Chronic Illness

Updated: May 8, 2023

My experiences in polar science and my experiences with chronic illness are closely linked.

My first introduction to the field of geoscience was in the Boston University Antarctic Research Group (BUARG) as an undergraduate. I spent my summer 2017 internship picking anorthoclase crystals out of Arena Valley volcanic ash with a single-haired paintbrush. Sometimes I swapped my tin of grainy ash for a thumbnail-sized sample of Antarctic lakebed sediments from the mid-Miocene climatic optimum. Using metal hooks and scoops that looked like dental tools, I peeled apart the layers of pressed silt to reveal freeze-dried moss. Fine red stems branched into brown teardrop leaves, veins still visible when I turned up the magnification on my optical microscope.

That dull aluminum tin glowing brightly under the microscope lights felt like a portal back to a time I could only dream of—a time 15 million years ago when parts of Antarctica hosted a tundra landscape. Though I had entered the research program as a freshman planning for a career in science journalism, I decided to declare a major in Earth and Environmental Science and pivot to focus on research.

Just a few months before my time with BUARG came to an abrupt and upsetting end, I woke up feeling sick. I thought I had food poisoning. I canceled my weekend plans, then stayed home from work for a few days, and finally went to the doctor when I was still barely able to eat a week later.

Over the next few weeks and months, I received a variety of tentative diagnoses: stress, stomach inflammation, and a gut infection all seemed plausible, but rest and antibiotics did nothing to ease the severe daily nausea that was ruining my life. Still sick and with no answers, I returned to Boston for the fall semester, often too weak to walk upstairs without a break and too nauseated to fall asleep before the early morning. I remember little of those first few Earth science classes, but I can vividly recall cold sunrise walks to undergo medical testing before my morning lectures.

It was seven months before I would be diagnosed with gastroparesis or partial paralysis of the stomach muscles. By the time my newly prescribed medications began to work, I was dealing with daily secondary symptoms of dizziness, fatigue, brain fog, headaches, hair loss, and panic attacks from my months of malnourishment.

While my friends in my geoscience program were talking about exciting fieldwork opportunities and fun nearby hikes, I was barely managing my classes and extracurriculars. My hopes of someday going to Antarctica — or of participating in any fieldwork at all — were dashed. Before I got sick, I had been going to the gym five days a week to better my chances of being picked for a field team; now I could barely walk to class.

Though my health has improved dramatically over the past five years, I still deal with the symptoms of my illness every day. I’m used to living with it. I try not to let it get me down, and in general, it doesn’t. I love the work I get to do as a Ph.D. student in the Oregon State University ice core lab, and my health rarely gets in the way these days. However, positive thinking can’t get you out of chronic illness. I can’t ignore the realities of my health out of a desire to do the same things as my colleagues. Polar fieldwork, perhaps especially ice core drilling, has a high barrier to entry and takes place in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. Even if I could pass the National Science Foundation’s sometimes-inconsistent physical qualification process, I might still be sick and miserable doing fieldwork. Then again, I might feel fine and have a wonderful experience. It’s a gamble my fellow spoonies will empathize with. The decision is made harder by my longing to participate.

Many people in Earth Science are attracted to the field because they are outdoorsy and enjoy fieldwork. In a professional environment that places so much focus on such experiences, my lack of past fieldwork—and hand-wavy answers about my future participation—can make me feel isolated. Aren’t real geologists able to haul their equipment on long hikes? Aren’t real ice core scientists resilient enough to weather extreme physical conditions to collect samples?

And yet, despite not having all the same capabilities as my colleagues, here I am. I love my research, my outreach, and the people I get to work with, and I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. I don’t know what my future in this field holds, but I hope that by speaking more openly about disability and chronic illness we can all work together to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for every polar researcher.


Olivia Williams is a geology PhD student in the ice core and quaternary geochemistry lab in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. Together with her lab group, Olivia uses ice cores from polar glaciers to learn about the Earth’s past climate and how it changed over time. Her research focuses on using noble gas ratios as a proxy for past melting events. Olivia holds B.A. in Earth & Environmental Science and English from Boston University. She is also a writer and poet who loves to examine the intersections between science, history, and literature. Olivia's work has been featured in several publications, including Cicada magazine, the Boston University Beacon, and The Cryptonaturalist podcast.

Twitter: @olw_geo

Land acknowledgment:

Oregon State University in Corvallis is located within the traditional homelands of the Mary's River or Ampinefu Band of Kalapuya. Following the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855, Kalapuya people were forcibly removed to reservations in Western Oregon. Today, living descendants of these people are part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians.

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