Ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist in Antarc­tica

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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