5-True story: A prop plane, a bucket, and a trip to Antarctica
Pacifica Sommers is an ecologist and explorer. From the deserts of Arizona to the Antarctic tundra, Pacifica has looked at how organisms from tardigrades to pocket mice live in extreme environments. We talked with her about some of the most beautiful places on Earth, the diversity of folks who can be scientists, and what exactly that bucket is for on the flight to Antarctica.
This episode was produced by Shane M Hanlon and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Karen Romano Young. Interview conducted by Ashely Hamer.
Shane Hanlon: 00:00 Hi, Nanci.
Nanci Bompey: 00:00 Hi, Shane.
Shane Hanlon: 00:01 What is the most rugged or Spartan-like conditions you’ve ever been in?
Nanci Bompey: 00:07 Oh, that’s a great question.
Shane Hanlon: 00:08 Is it?
Nanci Bompey: 00:09 I think it’s pretty good.
Shane Hanlon: 00:10 Have you been in…
Nanci Bompey: 00:13 A rugged… Yes. You know, I used to be more rugged than I currently am. I’ll give you that much. But when I was in high school, I did one of those backpacking trips during the summer.
Shane Hanlon: 00:23 Okay.
Nanci Bompey: 00:23 Sometimes kids do that out West.
Shane Hanlon: 00:24 Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Nanci Bompey: 00:25 And for two weeks, I think we were canoeing and hiking, so didn’t shower for two full weeks.
Shane Hanlon: 00:31 Where were you?
Nanci Bompey: 00:33 I think it was Colorado.
Shane Hanlon: 00:34 The Colorado River stuff?
Nanci Bompey: 00:35 Yeah. Yeah, or maybe it was Green River or something. Is that a river?
Shane Hanlon: 00:39 I should know more of this than I do. I’ve known you for a while, I never knew this about you.
Nanci Bompey: 00:44 I used to be hardcore.
Shane Hanlon: 00:46 Yeah, I did not know that. I think, for me, my partner and I hiked the Grand Canyon a few years ago, rim to rim. And like that, in and of itself, is a feat, and everything, but that’s not even the memorable part of that story. My partner lost her wallet when we were hiking up a ridge in the middle of the canyon to try to find cell phone service so we could text our dog walker. She found her wallet ultimately, it ended up working out. But yeah, when I think of a question like this like, “Yeah, I did this really amazing thing, and it was like crunchy and everything else,” and like, “Oh, yeah, and then we had this weird other part where we almost weren’t able to like fly back because she wouldn’t have had her license because we had to text our dog walker.”
Nanci Bompey: 01:32 Very important.
Shane Hanlon: 01:32 Very important.
Shane Hanlon: 01:39 Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from Scientists for Everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.
Nanci Bompey: 01:48 And I’m Nanci Bompey.
Shane Hanlon: 01:50 And this is Third Pod from the Sun.
Shane Hanlon: 01:53 So today’s question of the week was inspired by a trek to Antarctica. Our guest today does some really amazing research in remote places. And while the conditions there in the place are rough enough, it turns out getting there can present its own unique challenges.
Ashley Hamer: 02:14 I feel like you’re trying to say something without saying it.
Shane Hanlon: 02:18 Yeah. I am trying to say something about it. It’ll be… Let’s just say it’ll be better coming from our guest. So let’s get into it. Our interviewer was Ashley Hamer.
Pacifica Summer…: 02:30 My name is Pacifica Summers. I am a microbial ecologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Formally, my job title is research associate. I am post-doctoral meaning I have my PhD, but I’m not a full-time faculty member. I am a postdoctoral research associate. So I work on different research projects funded by research grants, mostly from federal agencies. I mostly study microscopic life at the ends of the earth. I’m interested in what we can learn about ecosystems around us. And even those that live inside us, the microscopic ecosystems that make up our microbiomes from the natural laboratories of simpler ecosystems that you find, say, in melt holes on glaciers, using them as natural test tubes to study how ecosystems develop and organize at the microscopic scale.
Pacifica Summer…: 03:28 I have been to Antarctica three times, always for the summer research season, so that’s November through January or November through February in the austral summer. And I got there through the US Antartic program each time. So how you get there depends on which program you’re going with and which research base or camp you are going to. In my case, I was working in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. So I was based from McMurdo Station. So the way we get there is we fly first to Christchurch, New Zealand via commercial air. There, the US Antartic program outfits us with those classic red parkas that you see and puts us on an Air Force plane, usually a US Air Force plane. But because our program cooperates closely with New Zealand’s program, sometimes it’s a Royal New Zealand Air Force plane.
Pacifica Summer…: 04:24 And if you go early in the season or leave late in the season, the ice runways that you land on when you get to McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica are solid enough that they can fly the C-17 jets. And those are reasonably comfortable. They’re reasonably large. They take about five hours to get there. If you are going when it’s a little bit warmer in December near the summer solstice, those ice runways cannot support the C-17. Then they need to fly you on a C-150, the Hercules propeller plane. So it takes more like eight hours and you are crammed in there shoulder-to-shoulder and with your knees interlocking with the people across from you sitting on these mesh webbing seats.
Pacifica Summer…: 05:07 The pro tip is to put your big red parka behind you to create some kind of a seat back and a little bit more comfortable situation in there. And the bathroom is a bucket behind a curtain. So you climb over everybody’s knees to the end of the row and you step behind the curtain. And I was aware that it was a bucket behind a curtain, but what I didn’t expect was that there’s not like a lot of floor space around that to really get situated if you’re a lady over that bucket. So there’s like a ladder that’s like on its side. So it’s like standing on luggage and ladder pieces balancing over this bucket. And you’re on this propeller plane for like an eight hour flight plus your minus time on the ground on either side. That was an experience.
Ashley Hamer: 05:51 I’d be afraid of spilling. I mean, does it ever spill?
Pacifica Summer…: 05:55 I didn’t have that experience. They lock that bucket down pretty well, and there’s a lid, I think.
Pacifica Summer…: 06:06 But you know, when you’re on the continent of Antarctica, they also take environmental protection really seriously. So you can’t just pee on the ground like you can when you’re hiking and camping here in the states. You have to collect it. If you’re not near a bathroom, you got to carry your pee bottles with you and pee into your pee bottles. And so for some of us, a funnel is very helpful for that endeavor as well. So there’s a lot of interesting bathroom situations there. But once we land in McMurdo, we spend a few days at the research station there in dorms getting all of our safety trainings and then to get to the camp and the glaciers that I work on in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, I board a helicopter and it’s about a 45 minute helicopter flight over to our actual research camp and research areas. That’s the whole journey out to get there.
Ashley Hamer: 06:52 And then how long do you stay?
Pacifica Summer…: 06:55 I was there for approximately three months, each of the three seasons I was there, between two and four months each time.
Ashley Hamer: 07:01 Okay, so for the full summer. Wow.
Pacifica Summer…: 07:03 Yes, but that means I’ve never seen darkness, I’ve only seen polar sunlight. And just last summer, I finally became a bipolar researcher, I like to say, and I went on my first field expedition to the Arctic to Svalbard where I’m working at 79 degrees north instead of 79 degrees south, where I worked in Antarctica, but I was there again during the summer and once again only saw the midnight sun. And I’m extremely excited that next Monday I am flying back to Svalbard to conduct our seasonal winter sampling on this Svalbard project, this high Arctic project. So I’ll be there to see actual sunsets and darkness and maybe, whether permitting and forecast permitting, I’ll even see the Northern Lights.
Pacifica Summer…: 07:53 I have to say, when I talk about the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, that is a truly special place in terms of the austere beauty and sort of menace of the environment. It was called by the first explorers, the Scott’s party, that first went up the Taylor Valley, it was called the Valley of the Dead. And that might be because of all the mummified seals lying around. There are actually mummified seals and penguin skeletons because when these animals get lost and wander up the valley, there’s nothing for them to eat and they die. And they don’t decompose because microbial life is so slow in that dry and cold environment that they just dry out. So it’s a very intimidating environment, but it’s very quiet. You don’t have airplanes flying overhead. You don’t have traffic, you don’t even have animals running through the underbrush. You don’t even have underbrush. You don’t have plants except like moss.
Pacifica Summer…: 08:46 So it’s beautiful and austere. And as I mentioned, it drives the community of people in that environment to really have to come together and work together and form a really special kind of community. We do have internet out there most days, unless it snows on and the snow blocks the solar panels that feed the radio repeaters that’s on the internet, but the internet’s very slow, even when we do get it. So it’s not like here where you’re connected. You don’t your cell phone, you can barely load your email. So we’re really interacting with each other and depending on one another.
Ashley Hamer: 09:26 And then for a final kind of parting words, what words of advice would you have for someone who’s going into science or wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Pacifica Summer…: 09:36 Ooh, that’s a tough one. Honestly, I would say, don’t worry so much about things, they will work out or they won’t. There are many ways to be a scientist. If you find out that maybe you’re not as good at some elements, like you’re not as good at sterile technique, or you’re not as good at the mathematical pieces, or you’re not as good at the coding pieces, or you’re not as good at the hiking far distances to collect the data that you need from the field pieces. There are all those other complementary pieces. And there’s just the question and the curiosity piece and the communication piece. So there are many ways to be a scientist. So focus on your strengths and round yourself out and try everything. But don’t worry. Nothing is as high stakes as it feels at the time.
Shane Hanlon: 10:37 So Nanci what’s the most high stakes job you’ve ever had?
Nanci Bompey: 10:41 I don’t like high stakes, but I think I was like high stakes, but, but, but, but you remember that year at the fall meeting when Mike Bloomberg, who was running for president at the time, showed up unannounced. I mean, not unannounced, but with a day notice, that was pretty intense. I mean, I had to coordinate all the media, the press person told me to lock down the riser, the press riser, where the cameras are. It was an intense time.
Shane Hanlon: 11:08 Did you enjoy that?
Nanci Bompey: 11:09 It was fun. It was cool. And then it’s like, they rush in, whole thing happens, Mike Bloomberg, blah. And then it’s done. You know what I mean? And then it’s over.
Shane Hanlon: 11:19 It’s just like wreckage, and you’re, “Oh, my gosh.”
Nanci Bompey: 11:21 Exactly. Exactly.
Shane Hanlon: 11:22 I worked on Capitol Hill for a little bit. That’s actually why I moved to DC. And honestly, to me, it felt really important. I don’t-
Nanci Bompey: 11:31 You don’t know if it actually was.
Shane Hanlon: 11:33 I don’t know if it was. Honestly, I frankly prefer like our nice kind of nonprofit space. It’s much more my speed. And I want to thank Pacifica for putting things into perspective.
Nanci Bompey: 11:45 Special thanks to Ashley Hamer for conducting the interview, NASA for sponsoring the series, and to Karen Ramono Young for illustration of Pacifica.
Shane Hanlon: 11:53 This episode was produced by me with audio engineering from Collin Warren.
Nanci Bompey: 11:57 We would love to hear your thoughts, please rate and review us. And you can always find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at thirdpodfromthesun.com.
Shane Hanlon: 12:06 Thanks all. And we’ll see you next week.
Shane Hanlon: 12:13 What is the most… Sorry, I just think of Monty Python. What is your favorite color? All right, let’s try this again.
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