Marine biologist in Antarctica
HERE are some of the perks of working where Melanie Ho does. At her workplace, they have a gym, wall-climbing facilities, a pool table, a theatre room and a bar.
They have a great chef who cooks all their meals, which include a serving of steak or any roast meats every day, and they have dinner parties every weekend which Melanie said are totally crazy.
At last year’s Christmas party, Melanie noted she had the best meal of her life – lobsters, prawns, oysters ... the whole works.
And to think the rest of us would be happy enough if our offices don’t ban Facebook applications.
To top it all off, Melanie’s workplace is in one of the most “exotic”, most sought-after locales in the world – the South Pole.
Welcome to life on the Davis scientific research station in Antarctica, where marine biologist Melanie, 24, was offered a chance to study how the larvae of marine wildlife might be affected by conditions in the future brought upon by climate change.
Yes, her work doesn’t sound half as exciting as the place where it’s done.
“Before I went there, I thought I’d have a lot of spare time. However, they take care of us really well – the company prepared a lot of entertainment for us. There hasn’t been a moment when I’ve gone: ‘What am I going to do now?’
“And even if you’re bored of being in the station, you can always go out for walks, but within station limits, of course,” revealed Melanie, whose work focuses a lot on envi- ronmental conservation.
The station is home to around 80 people during the summer, of which more than 15 are scientists like Melanie. The rest are support staff like plumbers, electricians, chefs and pilots.
There are a few drawbacks to working there, too. It’ll take you almost a month to get there by ship, during which you’ll most likely experience severe sea-sickness; temperatures can go down to -37°C (the lowest this year) and you can’t go home until your ship comes about six months later.
The ship only docks there four times a year – just once with supplies – and if you’re doing research during the winter, you’ll have to stay for over a year.
It’s a long way off from Melanie’s hometown of Kajang, Selangor.
Look on the bright side, though: the sun shines pretty much 24/7 during the summer, which is where Melanie is right now. Apparently, the temperature is “not that bad” in the summer – it’s between 0°C and -5°C!
“It’s really not that bad,” she said. “The coldest I’ve experienced there was -18°C. You get used to it after a while because the temperature is stable. It’s only cold when it’s windy.”
Melanie spoke to R.AGE just a day before she left for Australia, where she boarded the Aurora Australis, the ship that took her for her second six-month stint in Davis. She will probably arrive there soon enough.
Before being selected to work in Antarctica, Melanie did a lot of research in tropical marine wildlife for the University of Sydney, which has a three-year grant to do research in Davis.
“Then one day I got a call from someone saying I’d been offered a spot in Antarctica. It wasn’t something I aimed for. Some of the other scientists at Davis had planned for years to get there, so I guess I’m quite lucky,” she said.
But even before that, her job in Sydney was pretty sweet too.
“A lot of my friends asked why I never seemed to have any work to do, because I was always at the beach collecting animals for experiments, or snorkelling,” she said. Marine biology never sounded this fun before.
Now that she’s at the station, Melanie works from around 8am to 6pm in a large shipping container-turned-aquarium, and after that, she can hit the gym, play pool, hang out at the bar or do whatever else she feels like.
As a developmental biologist, she studies young marine animals. She simulates future conditions such as different temperatures and pH levels to see how her young subjects react.
“If the babies can’t survive, there’s no point studying the adults because there won’t be any left. We want to see if the larvae can survive future conditions. Even if we can’t prevent certain things from happening (to the animals), at least we’ll know why it happened,” explained Melanie.
That kind of research is particularly important to the ecosystems in Antarctica, as, according to Melanie, it is one of the places heating up the fastest due to global warming.
“Antarctica has always had a very stable environment. It’s just always cold, so the animals are conditioned to it. Any fluctuations could be disastrous to them,” she said.
If Melanie’s research produces any significant results, she can then present them to the Australian government and advise them, for example, if a particular area needs to be declared protected.
At the moment, Melanie can’t see herself coming back to Malaysia for work, as there just aren’t as many avenues for her to do conservation work.
“There’s not much emphasis on conservation in Malaysia at the moment. You need grants and support to do conservation work. I can do more to help (the environment) by working in Australia,” she said.
Malaysian marine biologist Melanie Ho says she didn’t have a single boring moment throughout her six-month stay in Antarctica.