I’m not proud of it, but I actually squeaked when I saw it in my inbox. Antarctic Field Work: that was the subject line of an email waiting for me one day in mid-April. It was a short email–a few sentences from my soon-to-be-advisor that conveyed, without preamble or fanfare, that she had secured funding for her current graduate student and one additional person to go to Antarctica to conduct research, and would I at all be interested in participating?
Hence, the squeaking.
Perhaps I should have spent more time in crafting a dignified response, but it was all I could do to keep the exclamation marks to a minimum. (Four. It had four exclamation marks). Thank Heavens I didn’t unleash a stream of disbelieving and ecstatic expletives, as I would in my head and in my subsequent announcements to family. And friends. Former co-workers. Vague acquaintances. Strangers on the street who accidentally made eye contact with me.
(Fine, you caught me! Six, okay?! It had six exclamation marks. Are you happy now??)
Now, as self-aggrandizing as I’m tempted to be in this account of what I’m already mentally referring to as my “expedition,” I should tell you: it’s not really that crazy, given what I’m studying in grad school, that I’m going to Antarctica. I’m going to grad school for Oceanography (and Astrobiology, but that deserves its own blog post), and I’ll be working in a lab that specializes in the study of polar microalgae. A typical PhD program in oceanography takes around 6 and a half years (I don’t want to talk about it). My PI (principal investigator—science-speak for mentor/bosslady/head of lab. Not, in fact, an acronym for a tough-talking film noir detective) is incredibly accomplished, and has won a bunch of prestigious awards already, so the chances of us having funding to do this sort of work in my incredibly-long-graduate-school-career-that-won’t-be-over-until-my-thirties (seriously, I don’t want to talk about it) were always pretty good. Which isn’t to say it’s not the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life—it WAY is—but: it’s not utterly shocking.
The weirdest part, I think, is that it’s happening in my first year of grad school, before I’ve taken a single oceanography class or done a single research cruise. (Or any cruise, for that matter–my four days on the Gould will be my first time sleeping on any ship overnight. Good thing the Drake Passage is so famously tranquil!). It’s not my first time conducting research, or even my first time in the field, but I can’t help feeling very much like a rookie. In the past months, I’ve been able to look forward to our upcoming trip with the kind of vague excitement of a daydream: it never felt real. Even now, one day out from our departure, that seventh continent—hanging off the edge of our planet and collective awareness, a blank space at the foot of the map whose whiteness we might sometimes mistake for emptiness—seems as alien to me now as it did that April day when I opened my inbox and yelped with disbelieving delight.
So pull out your crayons, dear reader. (And by “reader,” I mean “mother,” because it’s entirely possible she’s the only one reading this. Hi, Mom!). Sharpen your colored pencils and lay out your paintbrushes. Let’s add a little color to that big white circle pasted on the bottom of the globe. I can’t promise to stay inside the lines.