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Lab Rats

Researcher on ice

A graduate student enjoys a change of scenery

Kate Hendry 7 March 2005

Hendry and colleagues fish for "green sludge" off the coast of Rothera, Antartica

With water temperatures near freezing, lab coats aren’t really appropriate...

Lab work is all about beakers and measuring cylinders, right?

I’m a geochemistry PhD student, and I’ve been known to don a white coat and use beakers and measuring cylinders in a shiny, clean laboratory. However, the laboratory I’m using at the moment is a bit different. From the inside it looks like an ordinary lab, with fume hoods, glassware and various bits of tubing. The obvious difference comes when you look out the window. Instead of seeing pavements, traffic and street lights, you see stunning views of mountains, icebergs and even the occasional penguin. I’m working at the moment in the Bonner Laboratories at Rothera, the biggest British Antarctic Survey (BAS) base on the Antarctic Peninsula.

There are about twenty scientists (or "beakers" as we are affectionately known, after the character from The Muppet Show) working at Rothera, studying a variety of subjects covering marine and terrestrial biology, atmospheric physics and chemistry. There are nearly a hundred people on base in the summer months, however, just to keep everything functioning. For every one beaker there are plumbers, electricians, administrators, cooks, builders and mechanics. We also share the peninsula with Adelie penguins and four different species of seal.

On sampling days, I go out with my co-workers on a small boat in the morning and collect seawater. With water temperatures near freezing, lab coats aren’t really appropriate and we generally stick to dry suits. Using a small pump, and metres of silicon tubing that we throw overboard, we take samples from a depth of fifteen metres to measure nutrients, chlorophyll and trace metals. I’m looking at trace metals in particular, both in the water and in the phytoplankton (otherwise known as algae or green sludge) that live in the water. We also have to measure things like temperature, pH and the amount of oxygen in the water. This involves sticking an impressive gadget into a large measuring cylinder of water. Even on boats, beakers need their measuring cylinders.

When we get back, we are usually in time for "smoko" – the BAS term for a coffee break. In the afternoon, I get beakering. I have to filter the seawater to extract the phytoplankton before freezing the plankton and acidifying the water so I can measure the trace metals when I get back to the UK. On other days, I can get on with reading, or help out with other science projects around base.

A major difference between working here and in the UK is the amount of improvisation. In Rothera, if anything breaks, or doesn’t work – you fix it yourself. It’s amazing what an empty tissue box and a roll of duct tape can do and, quite frankly, zippy bags are a wonderful invention. I have found it quite challenging but interesting, and great for thinking of ways to get out of tricky situations.

I work five full days a week, and Saturday morning. In my spare time, there’s lots to do including hiking, skiing and plenty of music, books, videos and socialising. Rothera has a friendly atmosphere and I have acquired a different and wider outlook on life since being here. It’s definitely more than a lab full of measuring cylinders.