The summer I was British

Ok, of course I wasn’t really. And it was only two months. Well, not even that, actually. And this was in the austral summer, over seven years ago.

Towards the end of my PhD in Southampton, after a grueling regimen of 5 research cruises in 16 months to get my samples from the Antarctic Peninsula (plus an additional cruise working as a technician – a PhD studentship only goes so far…), I decided that I needed… more samples. Oh, and I also really wanted to go to Rothera, a research base on the Peninsula operated by the British Antarctic Survey. What can I say, it was way up there on my to do list.

So I talked to some people, as you do, and ended up getting a Collaborative Gearing Scheme (CGS) Award through the then brand new Antarctic Funding Initiative – basically, this meant that they’d let me stay and work at Rothera for four months, they would get me and my lab supplies etc. there, but I would have to provide the stuff myself.

Fantastic, I thought, four months is a lot of time to do a lot of stuff. I’d basically be drowning in samples. This would be the best PhD thesis ever.

Only that, about two months before I was scheduled to go, I got a phone call one evening. I was walking home from the lab (or was I on the way to the pub?). It was Lloyd Peck, who had given me the idea with the CGS award and who had supported my application. The Bonner lab at Rothera, he said, had just completely burned down.

I seem to remember saying “wow” and “I can’t believe it” and “how did it happen” and obvious things like that, but I think the conversation ended with me thanking Lloyd very politely that he had informed me so promptly. However, that was after I had already had a cunning plan for a way out: I was going to ask the NSF Office of Polar Programs whether they wouldn’t let me work at Palmer Station instead.

Amazingly, a very bold e-mail later (remember, I was just a lowly PhD student!), things were already in the works for me to go. For two months instead of four – the station was fully booked for the season – but beggars can’t be choosers, after all. And a beggar I was indeed.

When I arrived at Palmer, the US flag flew over the station – naturally – and, next to it, the British flag. First I didn’t really take any notice, and I am not sure why the question came up at all later, but it turned out that someone had assumed that – since I was ‘the scientist from the British Antarctic Survey’ – that I must be British.

In addition, the person planning the room allocation had decided that they would put the ‘two Brits’ in the same room: so I ended up with Meredith Hooper as my room mate. Meredith is Australian, but she left there a long time ago. She was at Palmer to write a book: about crazy people in Antarctica (or something like that) – anyway, it was a success. Most mornings, when she wasn’t going into the field with anyone, she’d wander off up the hill to her ‘office’ – a little room in a building housing all kinds of equipment – and I’d go downstairs to the lab or zoom out into Arthur Harbor in a Zodiac.

Even though I had to cut down tremendously on the work I had planned, I got good stuff done at Palmer in those two months. And I am still extremely grateful to the NSF – who absolutely did not need to step in when the Bonner Lab burned down – for squeezing me in at such short notice.

However, I still haven’t been to Rothera.

Now, there is trouble.

No speed limits here…

This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The post has been moved to SciLogs.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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5 Responses to The summer I was British

  1. Stephen Curry says:

    A brilliant exposition of the truism that “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” I’ll bet your visit was all the sweeter since it was the result of such great initiative.
    So, how do you plan to make it to Rothera…?

  2. Cath Ennis says:

    I think I’ve read that book – either that one or one very like it. It was great, anyway!

  3. Heather Etchevers says:

    “Cruise” just doesn’t sound serious enough.
    That’s sweet they put up the flag for Meredith and you. These are great traditions.
    Maybe you could get to Rothera – or much of the way – as a kind of scientific advisor on one of those passenger vessels ?

  4. Frank Norman says:

    Is that anywhere near Rotherhithe ?

  5. steffi suhr says:

    Stephen: yes, I was rather happy and felt a bit spoiled in that case. I should mention here that a lot of my initiatives didn’t (don’t) work out this beautifully, though – but again, you have to try!
    Cath: I translated a bit of Meredith’s book last year, somewhat hoping I could get a deal with a publisher here in Germany, since there wasn’t (isn’t? haven’t checked again) a German edition. Her language is quite… artsy, which made it a real challenge… I did tell her this, to which she said it’s just because we scientists are not used to it, we want everything ‘to be so precise’.
    Heather: Maybe you could get to Rothera – or much of the way – as a kind of scientific advisor on one of those passenger vessels?
    You have no idea how many ex-Antarctic (and some current Antarctic) people do that – either after retiring or taking a break 🙂 Actually, I have much different plans right now – but Rothera is still on my list for sometime, although I don’t know when or how yet.
    Frank: Rotherhithe would be easier 🙂