As students prepare to head off to various parts of the country and the world this summer, three lucky Johns Hopkins undergraduates are already gratefully savoring memories of an extraordinary summer journey: a trip to Antarctica that they took earlier this year.
Seeing Antarctica in its summer season means heading south in the peak of the Northern Hemisphere's winter, and an anonymous Johns Hopkins alumna had been planning to do just that in January. She had booked passage on a Russian icebreaker when a scheduling conflict made it impossible for her to go. The alumna generously offered to donate the trip to Johns Hopkins, contacting Gary Ostrander, associate dean for research in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
"I was overwhelmed and humbled that someone would donate a trip to Hopkins students valued at over $50,000," Ostrander said. "Especially since they could have just as easily given it to a friend or even sold it on eBay!" Ostrander offered the trip to the most inveterate Antarctic traveler in all of Johns Hopkins--Bruce Marsh, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, who semiregularly visits a region of Antarctica known as the Dry Valleys.
Initially, the notion had been for Marsh to use the trip to send two of his graduate students to Antarctica. But Marsh came back with another idea: Why not undergraduates?
"At that age, a trip like this is more than just an adventure," Marsh commented after the trip. "It's a dramatic, life-changing experience that they'll never forget."
After a quick consultation with the donor and a little back-and-forth with the tour company to determine that they could send three students, Marsh began to seek out the lucky travelers. Two to whom he offered the trip, Robin Mohapatra and Mike Gilger, are juniors who work part time in his lab.
"Right when I got back in September, I got an e-mail from Bruce, and it said, 'Stop by my office, possible cruise to Antarctica.'" Gilger said, laughing as he remembered how utterly astonished he was. "I was like, What?"
Both Gilger and Mohapatra have research interests that made them appropriate candidates for the trip. They had been helping Marsh work to develop computerized models of the Dry Valleys that he studies in Antarctica.
Marsh found the third traveler, Lev Horodyskyj, working in the labs of fellow Earth and Planetary Sciences faculty member Hope Jahren. Horodyskyj has looked at issues surrounding the first life forms to make the historic transition millions of years ago from life in the ocean to life on land. The briny lakes of Antarctica are among the very rare places in the world where such organisms still exist today.
Horodyskyj, who readily admits that he "lives for danger" and describes any element of risk or uncertainty on a trip as "really cool," had already traveled to the rain forests of Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands on an intersession course.
All three undergrads were amazed at their good fortune.
"I can't think of many professors who would put that much faith or trust in three undergraduates," Mohapatra said.
The epic journey ended up taking just under a month, with the three travelers leaving on Jan. 2. They began their trip by flying into Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, and then traveling to Ushuaia, an Argentine city that promotes itself as the "southernmost city in the world." From there, they boarded the Professor Multinovsky, a ship that carried them to Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands, where they boarded the ship that would become their home, the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov.
All three remembered it as a kind of fortress at sea, with approximately 90 people aboard: a friendly, efficient Russian crew; tour guides fluent in many languages; and travelers from various nations around the world.
A day or so before they boarded the Khlebnikov, one of the most surreal aspects of their journey began: The sun stopped setting when they crossed the Antarctic Circle.
"It was 20-something days in a row of sunlight," Gilger said. "We only had night for the first couple of days, while we were in South America, and on the first one or two days on the ship. It was funny, because the sun would go from one horizon, it would get down low, and then it would just stop and start going back up again!"
Horodyskyj had many stories to tell about the animals they saw, often at very close range.
"It was very nice because you could walk up fairly close to them and get these great pictures and not disturb their behavior," he said. "I was able to sit in the penguin colony for half an hour, and just make notes and observations on their behaviors."
Based on his observations of two different breeds of penguins, Horodyskyj hypothesized that one breed was more faithful to its mates than the other breed because their greeting ritual was longer and more elaborate. He later confirmed this hypothesis with a researcher stationed near the penguin colonies he observed.
Horodyskyj collected samples of snow, ice, sea water and fresh water at various latitudes for later analysis, and all three students were involved in making estimates from the deck of the ice breaker of ice thickness and studying how the ice dampened ocean waves.
They all came back with extensive new knowledge of sea ice--what it does to ships, how it affects the ecosystems that survive on it and, oddly enough, how amazingly beautiful the sometimes multicolored ice can be.
"I never knew sea ice could be so exciting! I didn't even know what sea ice was," Horodyskyj exclaimed.
The three had planned to meet Marsh at McMurdo Research Station, but ice in McMurdo Sound made it impossible for them to get to the station. Instead, two of the National Science Foundation personnel who work with Marsh and oversee funds that support his research came out to the Khlebnikov with a radio on which the group could talk to Marsh.
Although they couldn't make it to McMurdo Research Station, there were several other opportunities for field excursions, including chances to be in places where only a few other humans had ever set foot.
"At one point, we went to an area of Antarctica that is unclaimed by any nation, and that's where we got to walk on the ice shelf," Horodyskyj said.
On one of their excursions, they were able to visit the hut set up by famed Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, which is still standing nearly a century after his famous expeditions to the South Pole.
"I'd go out there, and I'm in a Goretex coat, I have Thinsulate, and I'm still feeling cold because a little water gets on my hands or something like that," Mohapatra said. "And I'd realize, I'm on the edge of the continent. The early explorers were crazy--brave, stupid or crazy, or all of that--because they wanted to see more of it and did, going into and across the continent without any of the modern conveniences I have."
The group also was able to visit a Dry Valley close to the one where Marsh does his research.
"I want to study paleoecology--early terrestrial paleoecology, the transition from the aquatic to the terrestrial realm--and the mosses and the cyanobacterial mats we saw in the Dry Valley were among the first organisms to make the transition," Horodyskyj said. "I had done a project on them the previous semester, and then to go out there and see one of the few places in the world where it's still like that is just really incredible. Everyone else might just have seen mud and rocks, but I saw the beginnings of life on land."
In a bit of unplanned adventure, the Khlebnikov had to change course to rescue an Italian research ship that had become trapped in the ice and been stranded for about a week. "We came and rescued them at about 1 in the morning, and everyone was up to watch. And they all cheered when we came, and both sides were taking pictures of what was going on," Horodyskyj said.
Although they had mostly good weather, the Antarctic didn't let them get away completely unscathed. An intense storm with winds of up to 101 knots (120 miles per hour) and occasional whiteout conditions kept everyone indoors on the ship for several days.
Coming back from the Antarctic brought some surprises. Horodyskyj mentioned how amazing it was to see green again, and Mohapatra and Gilger said they had both forgotten how dark things can get at night.
Since their return to Baltimore, the three have written research reports and grateful thank-you letters that were sent to the anonymous alumna donor.
"It's one thing to go somewhere and see a whole bunch of cool things, but it's another thing entirely to go somewhere, see cool things and understand why they're cool, and we could do that both based on our research interests and training and based on the lectures they gave us almost every day on the ship," Horodyskyj said.
"It's just one of those places where you feel so lucky to just be able to go and see it," Mohapatra said. "So few people will ever get to have that opportunity. And the donor and Professor Marsh, without even thinking about it, gave us that opportunity to see the Southern Continent."
Marsh, too, expressed his appreciation. "I'm delighted to have a donor who places this much trust in us to carry out such a remarkable expedition," he said. "And very pleased to have a dean like Gary Ostrander who never so much as flinched when I suggested we send undergraduates."