Museum Scientist Engages Students on Antarctic Journey
A unique teaching and research experience awaits Canadian Museum of Nature palaeontologist Dr. Natalia Rybczynski in February 2011. For the first time, the fossil-mammal specialist is visiting the Earth's southernmost continent while testing her sea legs on board a research vessel.
She joins a team of about 30 scientists, historians, artists, educators and polar experts who will mentor university students during a trip to Antarctica from February 14 to 28, 2011, as part of a Students on Ice programme.
Led by environmentalist and educator Geoff Green, Students on Ice (SOI) offers a life-changing opportunity for students to explore the polar regions. Museum researchers have shared their expertise on previous SOI trips that were geared to high-school students; this February 2011 expedition is the first time the museum has collaborated on SOI's new university programme, wherein graduate and undergraduate students earn academic credits.
"The polar regions are 'ground zero' for climate change, as they are the most sensitive areas for global warming," explains Rybczynski. "Our students will be able to see this pattern first-hand while learning more about the causes and consequences of climate change by studying the geological record in Antarctica."
Rybczynski, who is also an adjunct professor at Carleton University, is teaming-up with Carleton professor Dr. Claudia Schröder-Adams to teach a course about the evolution over time of Antarctica and the surrounding ocean. The multi-disciplinary programme will cover geology, biology, ocean sciences and climate change.
"The strength of being there, as opposed to in a classroom, is that you can see major changes in Earth's history right in front of you. The students can then connect their observations with the evolution of Antarctic ecosystems."
The sea journey begins at Ushuaia, a picturesque community at the southern tip of Argentina. Once aboard the MV Ushuaia—a 3000-tonne, reinforced vessel outfitted for oceanographic research—participants will conduct scientific research such as taking water and sediment samples from the ocean. Lectures and workshops will also fill out their days. Daily trips by Zodiac to the mainland will enable hands-on studies of rocks, fossils, ice and ecological habitats.
Even though the Antarctic region will be new to her, Rybczynski is familiar with the rigours of polar work. She has led numerous research expeditions to Canada's High Arctic. Despite potential pitfalls of bad weather or seasickness, she looks forward to some comforts that are lacking on her Arctic trips. "We won't have to worry about pitching a tent and someone else will be doing the cooking," she notes.
With a focus on coursework, the expedition is definitely not a sightseeing trip. But the scenery and wildlife will no doubt have cameras clicking. "I'd love to see humpback whales and leopard seals. I did a project on humpbacks in grade school, and it's just one of those awesome animals that you grow up thinking about," she explains.
If weather permits, Rybczynski will join Schröder-Adams to visit Seymour Island, one of the few sites in the world where the Cretaceous/Paleogene boundary (formerly the Cretaceous/Tertiary) is exposed. This area provides evidence of the mass extinction that brought an end to the dinosaur era.
Over the two weeks of their southern journey, the students will develop knowledge, skills and practices that should help in their future careers. Rybczynski is hopeful that the experience will have a lasting impact. "A journey like this is where big conceptual leaps can happen. One outcome I would like to see is that they come away with some future research questions."
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