Ice ice lady

Get­ting a grant to do re­search work in Antarc­tica was a gla­cial op­por­tu­nity Shoba Thomas couldn’t pass up.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front page - By ANN MARIE CHANDY star2@thes­tar.com.my

Par­tic­i­pat­ing in an Antarc­tic sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tion has been a most ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for this young sci­en­tist.

NOT many peo­ple have snap­shots of them­selves dressed in waders, sit­ting on an iceberg next to a herd of south­ern ele­phant seals ... but skim through 28-year-old Shoba Mary Thomas’s Face­book pro­file and you’ll find many such in­credi­ble shots of the young sci­en­tist at work in Antarc­tica.

Yes, you read right. Antarc­tica. Thomas is a Masters of Science (Re­search) stu­dent from Univer­siti Malaya and a re­cip­i­ent of the Yayasan Penye­lidikan An­tar­tika Sul­tan Mizan (YPASM) Berth Sup­port to Rothera Re­search Sta­tion in Antarc­tica grant.

As part of her sec­ond po­lar re­search ex­pe­di­tion which ended on March 5, she is study­ing mi­cro­bi­o­log­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties in mar­itime Antarc­tica. Her re­search pa­per sketches the ef­fects of en­vi­ron­men­tal vari­abil­ity and re­gional change on the di­ver­sity and sur­vival of th­ese micro­organ­isms.

Thomas races through her ex­pla­na­tion about the re­search work with a glint in her eye, burst­ing with en­thu­si­asm about soil sam­ples, ris­ing tem­per­a­tures and mini green­houses made by Dutch col­lab­o­ra­tors.

“The Antarc­tic is an im­por­tant place be­cause of the global ef­fects on sea­wa­ter ... the sea lev­els are ris­ing, and global weather pat­terns are all de­ter­mined from there,” she at­tempts to help me un­der­stand why her re­search has taken her all the way to the south­ern tip of the globe.

Rothera Re­search Sta­tion, where Thomas has now spent a to­tal of six months, is run by the Bri­tish Antarc­tic Sur­vey (BAS), and lo­cated on Rothera Point, Ade­laide Is­land on the west of the Antarc­tic Penin­sula.

The sta­tion lies south of the Falkland Is­lands and south-east of Punta Are­nas in Chile. In Rothera, sci­en­tific re­search is ac­tively car­ried out all year round, even dur­ing win­ter.

Rothera is able to ac­com­mo­date around 100 peo­ple in the sum­mer months (midOc­to­ber to April) and dur­ing the win­ter (April to mid-Oc­to­ber) it is kept run­ning by about 20 ded­i­cated staff.

“There’s a big sup­port net­work out there,” Thomas shares. “Doc­tors, chefs, me­te­o­rol­o­gists, pi­lots, me­chan­ics, plumbers, elec­tri­cians – enough staff to keep the base up and run­ning.”

Just how did a girl from Ke­lana Jaya, Se­lan­gor end up in po­lar re­search?

“Fun­nily enough,” she says, “af­ter Form Six, I was of­fered mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy at UM and I had no idea what it was! I wanted to be a doc­tor but I’m so glad that didn’t work out ... it was a bul­let dodged and I got to go to Antarc­tica in­stead!”

The SM Seri Aman school­girl who did her STPM at SM La Salle in Petaling Jaya says that study­ing mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy turned out to be a bless­ing.

“It is so much fun look­ing down mi­cro­scopes at cells. Also, I al­ways en­joyed play­ing around in dirt when I was a lit­tle girl, and now I am be­ing al­lowed to do it for my de­gree ... much to my Amachi’s dis­may!” Thomas says, re­fer­ring to her grand­mother’s vex­a­tion at the un­la­dy­like oc­cu­pa­tion.

Thomas is one of sev­eral Malaysians who have been sent by the YPASM to Antarc­tica. YPASM was launched in 2012 with a mis­sion to sus­tain Malaysia’s pres­ence in po­lar re­search and strengthen re­search ca­pac­ity in global fron­tier sci­ences.

“The Antarc­tic Penin­sula has some of the zones with the high­est warm­ing trends so there are a lot of bases sit­u­ated there. The sta­tions here are Ar­gen­tinian, Brazil­ian, Chilean, Chi­nese, Uruguayan, Rus­sian, Korean, and Bri­tish,” Thomas re­lates.

This re­gion is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the fastest de­gree of in­crease in en­vi­ron­men­tal tem­per­a­ture, and study­ing th­ese ef­fects will pro­vide a greater un­der­stand­ing of how mi­cro­bial ecosys­tems will be af­fected in the not too dis­tant fu­ture.

“In my fi­nal year as an un­der­grad­u­ate, I found that al­though my project was great, my friend’s work was so much more in­ter­est­ing and so I started look­ing out for po­lar projects like hers.

“I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time as my su­per­vi­sor Dr Geok Yuan Annie Tan was in­volved in po­lar re­search, so I stayed on with her. I was very ex­cited. The ecosys­tem is so un­usual in Antarc­tica. I would like to con­tinue with po­lar mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy even af­ter my Masters.” Thomas is now in her fifth year of study. “Be­cause of per­sonal is­sues, I have taken longer than ex­pected and this project should run un­til mid-Oc­to­ber,” she shares.

The young sci­en­tist is the el­dest of four sib­lings. Her par­ents – Alexan­der Thomas and Achamma Mathews – passed away in 2010 and 2012 re­spec­tively. Thomas and her broth­ers have man­aged to fend for them­selves, with much en­cour­age­ment and sup­port from fam­ily and friends. There have been ups and downs, but em­bark­ing on this po­lar ad­ven­ture was never a point of con­cern for her.

“I was not afraid. The BAS takes good care of you. I had to at­tend a one month pre­de­ploy­ment course in Cam­bridge, dur­ing which they pre­pare you for what to ex­pect. You learn ba­sic first aid, Malaysians are put through a sea sur­vival course, you get a kit bag with an outer jacket, boots, gloves and ther­mal wear,” she ex­plains, shar­ing how her re­search li­ai­son, Prof Dr Peter Con­vey, a ter­res­trial ecol­o­gist and se­nior re­search sci­en­tist at BAS, was par­tic­u­larly help­ful in the as­sim­i­la­tion process.

“My big­gest worry re­ally was that I had not planned out my science prop­erly ... re­mem­ber, there are no shops in Antarc­tica to buy stuff!”

Whether it is petri dishes, chem­i­cals or fil­ters, Thomas says it is im­per­a­tive that plan­ning is pre­cise for the three-month stay.

“I have learnt so much ... on the first trip, in 2015, I didn’t take an en­zyme that I needed for one of my ex­per­i­ments. I also didn’t have enough agar so I ended up hav­ing to call Peter, who was in Chile at the time, to get some from a Chilean col­lab­o­ra­tor!” Thomas re­lates, adding that she also learnt a lot about pack­ing and trans­port­ing re­search equip­ment and soil sam­ples across the seas.

The soil sam­ples she col­lected from Antarc­tica have been sent back to Malaysia for fur­ther anal­y­sis.

Ad­ven­ture time

One of the best take­aways from Thomas’ jour­ney has been the meet­ing of minds.

“It is so in­spir­ing to just sit and talk to other re­searchers... It is also good for net­work­ing, for cre­at­ing a group of friends who are start­ing out early in their sci­en­tific ca­reers. I now have friends from Bri­tain, from Spain... there is a strong Dutch pres­ence there also,” she shares. “It is very nice in Antarc­tica be­cause there’s so much science go­ing on, and every­one is so open about shar­ing knowl­edge.”

Thomas ar­rived at the Rothera Re­search Sta­tion on Nov 30 last year. From KL, she flew to Bri­tain, then headed to Madrid be­fore set­ting off to San­ti­ago, with a fi­nal stop at Punta Are­nas in South­ern Chile.

“From there we took a Dash-7, which is a small air­craft that seats 14 peo­ple and be­longs to BAS, ply­ing the Chile-Antarc­tica route,” she shared, pep­per­ing her story with how she got to sit in the cock­pit on the jour­ney home.

“That was an ex­pe­ri­ence in it­self!” she raves about the in­credi­ble views of blue sky and icy ex­panse.

When not in the lab­o­ra­tory, Thomas was able to pick up many news skills, in­clud­ing co-piloting a Twin-Ot­ter plane and see­ing some amaz­ing wildlife.

“I also learnt how to snow­board and I learnt to drive a rib (which is a lit­tle boat with a 40cc en­gine that can seat up to six peo­ple).”

The land­scape around Rothera is beau­ti­ful with the Shel­don Glacier on the west and

small neigh­bour­ing is­lands sur­round­ing it.

“There’s lots to see on those jour­neys from is­land to is­land – leop­ard seals, wed­dle, ele­phant and fur seals, hump­back whales and or­cas, Adelie and Gen­too pen­guins, and lots of birds – terns, skuas, pe­trels .... ”

In her 2015 re­port for YPASM, Thomas noted that most ar­eas in Rothera are de­void of plant life. The lack of wa­ter and tem­per­a­ture ex­tremes are the main rea­sons for this. While the sub Antarc­tic is­lands have va­ri­eties of grasses and higher plants, Rothera only has mosses and two species of flow­er­ing plants.

This was an in­ter­est­ing sight for a ter­res­trial bi­ol­o­gist from a coun­try such as Malaysia, she says. “It struck me how di­verse life is in Malaysia be­cause out there it is so completely dif­fer­ent!”

Thomas said an­other thing she quickly grasped was in­de­pen­dence.

“Over there you have to do things for your­self and there’s a cer­tain de­gree of ma­tu­rity that comes with that. One learns how to adapt. I learnt to be­come re­source­ful.

“I also learnt to do a lot of phys­i­cal things ... I hadn’t re­alised how ‘un­phys­i­cal’ I was in Malaysia!”

Strangely, the weather was a breeze for Thomas, who reck­ons tem­per­a­tures ranged be­tween 7°C and -5°C.

“But with snow­storms and bliz­zards it can get rather cold at times. Win­ters are much worse though, and no Malaysian has ever win­tered in Antarc­tica yet!”

Was it dif­fi­cult adapt­ing to the qui­eter pace of life in the white wilder­ness, af­ter hav­ing spent all her grow­ing up years liv­ing in a state with a pop­u­la­tion of six mil­lion?

“We were not completely cut off from the rest of the world; we had tele­phones and we had In­ter­net ac­cess ... ac­tu­ally the con­nec­tiv­ity was bet­ter than what I get in my lab at uni,” she laughs. But Thomas agrees that they are cut off to a cer­tain ex­tent.

“We are in a bit of an Antarc­tic bub­ble ... we for­get there’s a whole world out there. For ex­am­ple, I didn’t know about the hike in petrol prices and when I came back I was shocked to find that it cost RM70 for a full tank for my Kelisa!”

One doesn’t re­ally have time to get bored, as every­one there is on a mis­sion. Plus, there’s recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties avail­able at the base – a hard disc with 19 ter­abytes of en­ter­tain­ment, a PlayS­ta­tion, an Xbox, board games, a li­brary and a pool ta­ble .... more than enough to keep one en­ter­tained when the weather isn’t be­ing co­op­er­a­tive.

Women in science

All said, Thomas is su­per thank­ful for the op­por­tu­nity that she has been af­forded.

“From a work per­spec­tive, the sam­ples col­lected will al­low a bet­ter view of the trends of bac­te­rial re­sponses, as more data points im­prove res­o­lu­tion. This gives more mean­ing to the anal­y­sis and the con­clu­sions drawn from the anal­y­sis,” she of­fers, in true geek fash­ion.

She is also grate­ful that every­one – in Antarc­tica, Bri­tain and Malaysia – has been very sup­port­ive of women in science. “I have faced no dis­crim­i­na­tion at all when it comes to work.”

Her FB page is filled with com­ments from friends and fam­ily say­ing how in­spired they are with her achieve­ment, but Thomas mod­estly says she is no role model.

“I never thought I would ever get th­ese op­por­tu­ni­ties ... I al­ways had such av­er­age dreams! I guess 18-year-old me would be pretty im­pressed with what I have done! Al­though it wasn’t ex­actly a dream of mine, when the op­por­tu­nity pre­sented it­self, I’m glad I grabbed it.

“I do think that for many young women, we don’t dream big enough and that’s a shame be­cause there’s so much that young Malaysian women can do,” she says, cit­ing other fe­male re­searchers and sci­en­tists who jug­gle fam­i­lies with young chil­dren and re­search work as her in­spi­ra­tion.

The Na­tional Antarc­tic Re­search Cen­tre has many brilliant, hard­work­ing fe­male sci­en­tists that Thomas looks up to.

“As I am early in my ca­reer as a re­searcher, they are my role mod­els,” says Thomas, adding that the foun­da­tion for be­ing strong orig­i­nated at home, from be­ing raised by strong women.

“Not just my mother, but aunts and grand­moth­ers, too! Mum was in­cred­i­bly strong de­spite her ill health (can­cer) and was pos­i­tive, up­beat and de­ter­mined to over­come her ill­ness... she’s a re­minder to me to keep per­se­ver­ing.

“Mum (and Dad too!) al­lowed me to be me – scabby knees and weird child­hood in­ter­ests in creepy crawlies and ev­ery­thing. That free­dom that they gave me to pur­sue my in­ter­ests has been in­stru­men­tal in shap­ing me.”

Photo: SHOBA MARY THOMAS

— Photos: SHOBA MARY THOMAS

Though seem­ingly iso­lated, the Antarc­tic has opened up a whole new fron­tier of dis­cov­ery for this young woman sci­en­tist.

Thomas is study­ing mi­cro­bi­o­log­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties in mar­itime Antarc­tica at the Rothera Re­search Sta­tion, south of the Falkland Is­lands, Ar­gentina.

The op­por­tu­nity to work on the Antarc­tic re­search has also al­lowed Thomas to col­lab­o­rate with sci­en­tists from all over the world.

Thomas says she wants to con­tinue her re­search in the Antarc­tic even af­ter she has com­pleted her Masters be­cause the ecosys­tem there is so un­usual.

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