The lure of Antarctic experiences

After eight years overseas, Rutherford Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Holly Winton has returned to work with Antarctic Research Centre scientists on uncovering the vital information the frozen continent can tell us about Earth’s climate past.

A profile image of Dr Holly Winton.

“I’ve always loved snow and skiing - and I’ve been fascinated with Antarctica since I was young,” Holly Winton says. “I took my first trip to Antarctica while completing a Graduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies and I became hooked on Antarctic research!”

Holly went on to complete her Masters (and another trip to Antarctica) at the University’s Antarctic Research Centre.

“I loved studying at the Antarctic Research Centre,” Holly says. “It was a stimulating and supportive environment, and postgraduate students were always included. I had the chance to work with world experts in Antarctic climate research, as well as work in the only ice core facility in New Zealand, which is jointly run by the University and GNS Science.”

After completing her Masters, Holly went to Perth to complete her PhD. Her PhD studies took her to Antarctica twice more, as well as to the Southern Ocean and out into the Australian outback to collect smoke samples from bush fires. Then it was off to the United Kingdom for work as a polar atmosphere ice chemist at the British Antarctic Survey and a fifth trip to Antarctica.

“Five expeditions to Antarctica is a huge privilege, and I don’t take it for granted,” Holly says. “I’ve tried to absorb every moment on these trips and treat every one like it’s the last.”

Antarctic research is a mix of exciting highlights and unexpected experiences, Holly says. Her highlights have ranged from working with incredible scientists all over the world to flying a tiny Twin Otter plane across the Antarctic continent.

“I’ve loved having the opportunity to travel to so many new places and learn new ways of approaching a scientific question.”

Being far from home can be difficult, however, Holly says. Antarctica also has other challenges—namely, the freezing temperatures.

“I’ve experienced down to minus 42 degrees Celsius in Antarctica,” Holly says. “When you’re wrapped up in enough gear to deal with these temperatures, even simple tasks like writing take twice as long! It certainly takes a lot of practice and patience, as well as a lot of hot drinks, to cope.”

Holly’s work in Antarctica has recently focused on using ice cores to reconstruct past UV radiation and the state of the ozone layer over the past 1000 years.

“Scientists have been monitoring the thickness of the ozone layer since the 1950s, but before that we have no idea if the ozone layer changed in the past or what caused it to change,” Holly says. “The ozone layer shields all life from harmful UV radiation, so it’s vital that we understand how it changes.”

Holly will continue her ice core research at the Centre.

“I am using novel biomarkers in Antarctic ice cores to understand how marine primary production has changed over the past 2000-years in the Ross Sea. Primary production is the production of organic matter by tiny photosynthetic plants. It forms the base of the food chain and plays a critical role in carbon sequestration. Ice cores extend relatively short observational records providing detailed insights into the Ross Sea ecosystem and climate.”

Holly has some advice for aspiring researchers.

“My advice is live in the moment, don’t be afraid to share your research ideas with others, celebrate your achievements (even if they are small) and make sure you enjoy your work.”