Professional Development

Lure of Polar Regions Is Strong For Antarctic Veterans

By David J. Hoff — May 23, 2001 2 min read
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Ask teachers who have gone to Antarctica if they’d go back.

The answer is, invariably, yes.

“In a heartbeat,” said Kolene Krysl, an Omaha, Neb., middle school teacher who spent November and December tackling seals to mount research devices on their backs. “You just dream of ways to get down there again—to do the same experience or something else.”

“I’d go back,” said William Swanson, the El Paso, Texas, teacher who spent this past December collecting and analyzing chlorophyll samples collected in the Weddell Sea. In fact, the scientist he worked for is headed back to the Antarctic seas for a research cruise in July.

“I told him, ‘If you want me to run your chlorophylls, I’m there,’” Mr. Swanson said.

The response is common for people who travel to or work in Antarctica, according to psychologists who study them. “Being there is just so exhilarating and wonderful, and you’re doing something that most people will never get to do,” said Peter Suedfed, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Everyday Blues

Just as the draw to return seems inevitable, so is a feeling of emptiness about leaving. Ms. Krysl calls it “post-Antarctic depression,” a description echoed by other teachers who have visited the southernmost continent under the National Science Foundation’s Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic program.

In Antarctica, the teachers focus energy on tasks in front of them and face few distractions. They often work 14 hours a day because tasks such as cooking meals are taken care of by others, and interruptions such as telephone calls never happen.

But, once they return, everyday tasks beckon.

Wendy Slijk, a La Costa Canyon High School teacher in Carlsbad, Calif., returned home April 14. The first action she took was to sign the income-tax returns that her accountant had prepared while she was on an eight-week cruise in Antarctic seas.

“Oftentimes, there’s quite an adjustment to be made,” said Lawrence A. Palinkas, a professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied the psychological effects of isolation and confinement. “The experience is so dramatic. Everything else seems kind of mundane in comparison.”

But the experience has the benefit of increasing self-esteem after people learn how to cope with a challenging situation, he added. That’s part of the reason people want to return. “It’s almost like a drug,” he said. “You want to keep that feeling.”

Going Back

Of the 80 teachers the NSF has sent to Antarctica since the program began almost a decade ago, about half a dozen have gone there again, according to Stephanie S. Shipp, the project manager for the program and a research associate at Rice University in Houston.

Others go the opposite direction. Marge A. Porter, who worked on a cruise ship to study Antarctic sea ice, last year went with the same lead researcher to Alaska to work on an NSF project studying lake ice and snow accumulation. “My work on the sea ice,” she wrote in an e-mail message, “was such an amazing experience that I longed to go back.”

Ms. Porter, who teaches at Woodstock Academy in Woodstock, Conn., said that she will probably return to Alaska to work on the same research, and that she’d like to return to Antarctica.

Another teacher went back with her original research team while on sabbatical. A few returned after they retired from teaching, Ms. Shipp said.

None, however, revisits Antarctica with the TEA program.

“We hope they generate their own avenues” for returning, Ms. Shipp said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as Lure of Polar Regions Is Strong For Antarctic Veterans

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