Research projects

COVID has derailed polar research projects. This is how the students coped

Geologist Anna Sivils (right) discusses a sediment core at Oregon State University’s Marine and Geological Repository with her advisor, Philip Bart (left).Credit: Colby Knight

Anna Sivils couldn’t wait for the trip to Antarctica. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the geologist and master’s student at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge was scheduled to collect data in the waters off Antarctica from January to March 2021. At least that’s what she was thinking.

A few weeks before the departure date, Sivils learned that the trip was over. A crucial connection point in New Zealand did not have enough hotel space for the researchers’ mandatory COVID-19 quarantine, so the team had to postpone.

“I remember being really disappointed and sad,” says Sivils, who eventually found a workaround so she could continue collecting data for her master’s thesis.

Sivils is one of many student scientists whose polar fieldwork and academic trajectory have been disrupted by COVID-19. Closures and travel restrictions have delayed crucial data collection for some, pushing back graduation dates. Others graduated but never did any fieldwork in the frigid regions near the Earth’s poles.

Leaders in the field discussed the challenges facing trainees at a meeting of the US National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Office of Polar Programs Advisory Board meeting last month. They concluded that the community should “tweak” its definition of polar research to keep students on track, but should also take the opportunity to re-evaluate how students are trained.

Nature spoke to scientists around the world to see how they have adapted graduate training to the uncertain times brought by the pandemic, and what solutions – such as simulations of polar environments – are worth pursuing.

Sample sharing

Getting closer to the Earth’s poles to conduct research is not a simple task. Expeditions require international cooperation, huge sums of money, and advanced planning.

“You can’t start your project in January and expect to go to Antarctica later in the year,” says Daniela Liggett, a social scientist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. For Antarctica in particular, most trips are scheduled a few years in advance, so PhD or Masters students wishing to collect data on the continent usually need an academic advisor with pre-existing plans.

Sediment cores on shelves in a large storage facility at the Oregon State University Marine and Geology Repository

Sivils saved his master’s thesis project by using historic marine sediment cores stored at Oregon State University’s Marine and Geological Repository.Credit: Anna Silvils

Liggett co-led the Antarctic COVID-19 Project – supported by the International Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) – which interviewed researchers in late 2020 to see how the pandemic was affecting them and how SCAR could help them. The results indicated that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected early career researchersdefined as those within five years of completing a doctorate.

To undo the effects of the pandemic, respondents requested additional funding to support their work, as well as the sharing of electronic data and physical samples collected by others.

This pre-existing “legacy” data allowed Sivils to continue his research. After learning that she could not go to Antarctica to collect her own data from the Ross Sea, south of New Zealand, she directed her master’s thesis to analyze marine sediment cores collected there in the 1990s and held at the Oregon State University Marine and Geological Repository in Corvallis.

This change in his project added an additional year to Sivils’ master’s program. To pay for this, she had to take a full-time job. But she sees a silver lining by focusing on stored historical samples. “We’ve had the last few years to really look at all the legacy data and get a better idea of ​​’What are the missing pieces?'” says Sivils, adding that this will help the team focus on areas of the Ross Sea, he wants to prioritize once he finally gets there.

Search “democratic”

Other polar researchers facing pandemic delays have turned to data available online to keep projects on track, an increase noted by Anton Van de Putte, Antarctic regional manager for the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and Ocean Biodiversity Information System databases. Since the start of the pandemic, he has received an increasing number of requests for help finding data in these repositories. “It’s clear that people have started to work together more,” he says.

Sharing data in online repositories makes polar research more “democratic” because it means scientists don’t all need to go on expensive expeditions, Van de Putte says. “It allows people from diverse backgrounds to engage and be active in this area.”

Simulations of polar conditions have also enabled some student researchers to continue their work. Bomi Kim, an ice chemist and doctoral student at the Korea Polar Research Institute in Incheon, has studied how climate change affects the microstructure of polar ice, but her experiments took place in the lab rather than in Antarctica. She was able to replicate many of Antarctica’s environmental factors, including sunlight patterns, in a temperature-controlled space.

Reinventing expeditions

Still others have resumed studies by finding proxies for the polar environment. Philip Bart, a marine geologist at LSU and adviser to Sivils, had planned to take undergraduate students on his trip to Antarctica in 2021. Postponing the trip prompted him to reimagine Antarctic fieldwork for scientists budding. Over the next year, he will travel with a group of students from several universities to a glacial valley in central California. The trip is funded by the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.

The site in California contains geological features that Bart’s research team normally studies in Antarctica, such as piles of debris left by glaciers. “It’s analogous in that it’s a well-preserved record of glacial retreat,” he says.

Although the pandemic has brought innovations and cost savings to polar research training, “there is still no perfect alternative to fieldwork,” Kim says. For example, she cannot replicate all Antarctic conditions with her simulated lab setup and will still need to travel to confirm her results.

Sivils, who will graduate in LSU’s upcoming spring term, also worries that students are missing out on the adventure of setting foot in a polar region. Although the data she collects will not contribute to her own thesis, she will join the rescheduled trip to Antarctica during the 2022-23 field season.

“I have to go to Antarctica,” said Sivils. “I can’t let this go – it’s been my dream for so long.”