Monday, February 29, 2016

A DIFFERENT VISTA: 
PERSPECTIVE FROM A BURECS AMBASSADOR MOM

A year ago, I would not have been able to point out Antarctica on the map.

All I knew was that it was a cold place.

When my daughter Natalie told me she might have the opportunity to do climate change research there, I thought, wow. Cool opportunity. Great experience. It will look good on her resume.

And, maybe, I could even go visit her while she was there.

I did a little Internet research. Did I have enough frequent flyer miles to go visit her for a week? I couldn’t seem to find direct flights to Antarctica. I dug a little deeper. There are no hotels in Antarctica.

Yes, I was clueless.  This was not her mother’s study abroad semester.

It wasn’t until I visited the BURECS Lab where Nat was assisting with research the summer after her freshman year, and saw a panoramic view of the McMurdo Dry Valleys projected on an entire wall in the Digital Image Analysis Lab, that I got it.

This was BIG. This was other-worldly; another planet. And not just cool.

Cold.

Really, really cold.

And she’d live in a tent. Really? No heater? Shower? Bathroom?

No. No. And no.
Natalie and Jordan Yakowenko in the DIAL at BU

I listened to her Earth & Environment Professor Dave Marchant with my jaw dropped, as he explained the new, Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant-funded opportunity for undergrads.

Natalie had mentioned the possibility of going to Antarctica. She came home from freshman orientation the summer before she started school, very excited. Well we’ll see, I thought. A lot can change. She had a huge transition ahead her freshman year. And now, a year later, there she was, sitting in a newly equipped lab, with large screens mounted to the walls, a Scanning Electron Microscope, and surprisingly low-tech plastic baggies of volcanic ash. 

Natalie works with the SEM
We talked with Dave for a long time. I wanted Natalie to hear, along with me, about weeks in a tent in sub-freezing temperatures. The lack of ‘facilities.’  Maybe a call home every week or ten days from a satellite phone, weather permitting. A five-hour flight in a military cargo plane from Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Science Station. Then a helicopter flight out to the field. 

And my questions to her professor: What if she gets cold? Would the helicopter come out and pick her up? Could she go back to McMurdo for a hot shower?

Answers: No. 
Future BURECS Ambassador circa 2003
Our discussion didn’t deter her. 
Several weeks later, Dave formally asked her to be part of the first BURECS Antarctic Ambassador undergrad group. And next, another three-way conversation with him, this time via conference call. If Natalie was game, the wheels would begin turning quickly. Update the passport. Blood work. Doctors and dentist appointments, and complete medical and dental history, including panoramic x-ray proof that her wisdom teeth had in fact been extracted. Documentation needed to be submitted in a timely manner to ensure her eligibility for the program. 

RESEARCH
So now I could find Antarctica on the map, but I needed to figure out what the trip would be like for her. I watched Antarctica documentaries, Encounters at the End of the World and Antarctica: A Year on Ice. The bigger the screen, the better! Both have breathtaking footage helpful to view what only a few people get to experience in person.
I read geographer Jessica Walker’s fun and insightful blog (https://coldmaps.wordpress.com/) about one of her seasons on the Ice as the scientific and logistics mapping and imagery support for U.S. program stations. I was also able to talk to her over the phone in detail about her time spent at McMurdo. One summer, Jess and a group of co-workers were given the opportunity to spend one overnight in the field. They went through extensive training to prepare, including constructing their own igloo shelter. It gave me reassurance that Natalie and her fellow Ambassadors would be thoroughly outfitted, trained, and prepared should something unexpected happen out in the field.
GEARING UP
Graduate student Drew Christ, led a window shopping expedition for Natalie and fellow Ambassadors Emma and Dan to REI in Boston. It was a helpful field trip to recommend the best moisture-wicking fabrics and brands of long underwear, gloves, and socks. He also recommended specific toiletries and sunblock– although it’s interesting in reality how little Natalie said she ended up using once they were in the field. 



Working the camera

PEACE OF MIND
And then there were my practical/parental items to get in order: 
We purchased a travel health insurance policy in case Natalie needed care in route to Antarctica, or if there was a medical situation that McMurdo was unable to handle, and she would have to be airlifted to New Zealand. Oy. We used HTH Worldwide, the insurance company BU uses for their study abroad program. 
An international calling plan sounded like it was a good idea and would have provided me peace of mind. But it wasn’t necessary. Natalie was able to email me from her cell phone using WIFI on her way back and forth from the States through New Zealand, Australia, and Tahiti. And she could email me or call from a satellite phone from McMurdo. The Verizon customer service rep and I learned together that there are no cell towers in Antarctica. Makes sense.

Natalie's first helicopter experience
BRAGGING RIGHTS

  



I learned that not only did I earn bragging rights for Natalie’s great adventure, so did her aunts, grandparents, and high school teachers. So did my friends. And my friends’ families. None of us know anyone who has had the opportunity for such an adventure. The reaction of most people upon hearing about her research: First, there’s the wow, I can’t believe she doing this. Then there’s the wow, I can’t believe you’re allowing her to do this. And then finally the reflecting back to being 19 again, and remarking either, I would have never been brave enough to do this when I was young. Or yes, I would totally have gone to Antarctica – in a heartbeat! 

WHAT I LEARNED FROM MY DAUGHTER
This still falls under the category of bragging rights. I learned how capable, independent and resilient Natalie is. I learned that she is able to advocate for herself, travel internationally, and have the confidence to figure out things to which she doesn’t know the answer. I know that this has been a life-changing experience for her. True to Natalie’s temperament, I have a sense that this information will seep out slowly, not gush out all at once. She will share her adventure in time. I look forward to seeing her evolve as a student, scientist and researcher. And I look forward to be able to continue my bragging rights.



- Margie Robinson

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