Lure of the Ice entices bright young researchers

21 May 2019

Antarctica continues to call bright young researchers to her icy shores, and scholarships at the University of Canterbury are making their ground-breaking research possible.

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    “When we finally walked out onto the ice, I just burst into tears!” From left to right: Antarctic scholarship recipient Rose Foster, Gateway Antarctica scientist Dr Michelle LaRue, Associate Professor Wolfgang Rack, ChristchurchNZ's David Kennedy, and scholarship recipient Shinae Montie.

Antarctica continues to call bright young researchers to her icy shores, and scholarships are making their ground-breaking research at the University of Canterbury (UC) possible.

“They are the top of the top,” UC’s Gateway Antarctica Associate Professor Wolfgang Rack says of the two students who accepted scholarships last week, Shinae Montie and Rose Foster. “I am looking forward to the research they produce. It is amazing, the difference they can make, because they are really at the forefront of new knowledge that is relevant to global change.”

The Christchurch City Council (CCC), ChristchurchNZ and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) contribute to scholarships for Antarctic research at UC.

Montie was awarded a $5000 MFAT scholarship for her research using satellite remote sensing to detect heatwaves in the Antarctic Ocean.

“We should be more worried about heatwaves in the ocean than gradual warming,” she says.

Foster will explore the microhabitat variables, such as fast ice (sea ice attached to the shore), for emperor penguin colonies in the Ross Sea area, joining an international Antarctic-wide project, thanks to a $10,000 scholarship from CCC and the ChristchurchNZ’s Antarctic Office.

At the recent scholarship presentation, the students spoke about their visit to ‘the ice’ earlier this year as part of the UC summer Antarctic programme, and their enduring fascination with the southernmost continent.

Twice they flew to Antarctica but adverse weather prevented the plane landing. For these passionate young researchers, who had only dreamed of visiting Antarctica, it was hard work.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster,” Foster says. “When we finally walked out onto the ice, I just burst into tears!”

Foster was inspired by David Attenborough’s pioneering Frozen Planet documentary to give up her flight attendant job and “do more to help the planet”. She completed a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology and Applied Conservation at Auckland University of Technology, taking every chance to research polar ecology during her studies, before joining UC.

“The main aspects of polar ecology that interest me are understanding how species have adapted to living in such extreme environments, understanding the impact climate change is having on them now and in the future, and also participating in research which contributes to the development of effective conservation initiatives to mitigate these impacts,” she says.

Initially considering Arctic University of Tromso in Norway, Foster was swayed towards “the slightly closer to home Antarctic by a lecturer in Auckland. When I was accepted into the Postgraduate Certificate of Antarctic Studies at UC I was over the moon, and couldn't believe I'd be visiting Antarctica less than three years after I started my academic journey.”

The trip to the ice was beyond everything she could have imagined, she says. “It has ignited my motivation for studying and conserving the vulnerable species that call the frozen parts of our planet 'home'.”

Montie’s interest in Antarctica developed earlier, during her final years of high school.

“I began to explore electives that could accompany my degree in ecology. I have always been drawn to the marine environment, however my focus has since shifted towards the Southern Ocean. I now know that I want to dedicate my career to understanding, learning, educating and protecting the Antarctic, and the Southern Ocean region in particular.”

Both students paid tribute to the organisations who had helped to facilitate their research.

“I am extremely honoured to receive the MFAT scholarship in 2019,” Montie says. “This is an excellent opportunity which will directly fund important and novel research across the Antarctic marine environment in response to climate change. This scholarship means that I can devote more time and energy into my studies and help to better understand, learn and educate the broader public.”

Foster agrees. “I am extremely grateful for the wonderful support provided by the staff at Gateway Antarctica and the Christchurch City Council, and for all the help from my supervisor Dr Michelle LaRue, who has given me the opportunity to work on projects that I couldn't have imagined so early in my career.

“The novelty of coming in to the office every day and being surrounding by wonderful humans working on all aspects of Antarctic science still hasn't worn off and I doubt it ever will. I feel very lucky to be working with people who are pushing me to do my best work and showing me the way, and I am extremely excited about all the wonderful science that is on the horizon.”

Antarctic Studies at UC

As part of the Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies, UC offers an 8- to 10-day field course at Scott Base and in Windless Bight, Antarctica, comprising a mix of analytical projects (data and information gathering, analysis and interpretation) and interpretative exercises. Antarctic field training and the experience of living and working in the polar environment are additional components of this course. A written report on field projects will be required. This course will be offered in November 2019. Read more about Antarctic Studies at UC here.

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