Graduate student Alex Michaud, 26, has a thing for studying things that live in frigid, dark places — places most of us wouldn’t expect life to exist.
Michaud, a 2005 Eagan High School graduate, returned in mid-February after spending three months in Antarctica. He was part of a team of American scientists that successfully drilled into subglacial Lake Whillans, fulfilling one goal of the WISSARD (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) project: The team found microbes in the water they retrieved, confirming that life exists even half a mile beneath the ice.
Michaud, a Ph.D. student at Montana State University, talked about the trip and his future plans:
Q: The results of your Antarctic trip are a pretty big deal. What was it like when you finally broke through to the lake and were able to retrieve water samples?
A: We had a camera [that] was rated for deep water and there was a light in front of it, so we watched the bore hole as it went down. … The really fun moment was when everybody was huddled into one of the lab container units that had the video screens in it. When we saw it go down and into the lake, that was pretty exciting. … People were cheering.
Q: What was the atmosphere like in Antarctica?
A: Our camp at Lake Whillans was 50 people, but there were still 25 people back at McMurdo [the “home base” station that Michaud describes as being like a college campus]. It’s an interesting logistical dance in Antarctica. Everyone worked really well together, and it was a lot of fun. One of the cool parts of McMurdo certainly is that there are a lot of scientists there. We had nightly conversations in the coffee shop ... It’s the culture down there to hang around and talk about science.
Q: What were some of the day-to-day challenges?
A: You get up every day and you don’t know what the weather is going to be like, and weather puts a lot of constraints on travel. But during the summer, the weather is very pleasant. Temperatures hover just below freezing. If flights are canceled, it’s usually because of wind and blowing snow. A lot of times it’s like a cold sunny day in Minnesota, like that perfect ice fishing day. Also, at McMurdo, there are a lot of people … [but] there’s not a lot of private space. Even in the field it’s that way.
Q: What were your parents’ and others’ reactions to your trip?
A: They’re excited to follow the story of it all, not just the science, but the whole travel aspect of it. When I talk to people about it, a lot of times they’ll ask a couple of questions about the science, and then we’ll transition to, “So what did you eat down there?” Or “how do you deal with sleeping when it’s light out 24 hours a day?”
Q: So, what did you eat?
A: Actually, we ate pretty well. We did have a bit of a shortage of freshies down there, for a month and a half. Freshies are when they bring down a shipment of vegetables and fruits from New Zealand. So I make sure to have a salad or an apple almost every meal that I have now that I’m back.
Q: How did you become interested in biology?
A: Science was always my favorite subject in school growing up. I took a lot of biology classes in high school. It just clicked with me; I understood it and I could start to see the connections. I loved observing things in nature.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: After I graduate, I’d like to continue with post-doctoral work and then apply for faculty positions at a research university. [In terms of research], I don’t know for sure, but I’m most intrigued by bacteria and their ability to cope with such harsh conditions, just asking that fundamental question, “How are they making a living?” I’d like to continue focusing essentially on life and its interactions with ice.
Q: That’s perfect for someone from Minnesota.
A: It is! I spent enough time sitting on a frozen lake in high school and before. I wish I’d been thinking about these things at those times.