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Doing research work in Antarctica is this Malaysian’s dream come true

Star2 logo Star2 2 days ago ANN MARIE CHANDY

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.

© Provided by Star Media Group Berhad

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

Rothera is able to accommodate around 100 people in the summer months (mid-October 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.

Antarctica research Shoba Mary Thomas © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad Antarctica research Shoba Mary Thomas

Malaysian scientists have been given grants to study the polar environment with a vision to ensure the conservation of the regions, especially the Antarctic continent.

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.

Antarctica research Shoba Mary Thomas © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad Antarctica research Shoba Mary Thomas

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.

“I was not afraid. The BAS takes good care of you. I had to attend a one month pre-deployment 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 in Antarctica

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.

Antarctica research Shoba Mary Thomas © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad Antarctica research Shoba Mary Thomas

Among the skills Thomas has to acquire is flying a small plane.

“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.

Antarctica research Shoba Mary Thomas © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad Antarctica research Shoba Mary Thomas

Not making it to medical school and studying microbiology turned out to be a blessing for this enthusiastic polar researcher.

“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.”

Antarctic research missions

You may not have heard of the Sultan Mizan Antarctic Research Foundation, better known as Yayasan Penyelidikan Antartika Sultan Mizan (YPASM), but it has been around for six years now. Its vision is to ensure the conservation of the polar regions, especially the Antarctic continent, and the promotion of research collaboration between countries.

Recognising the need to sustain Malaysia’s involvement in polar research, YPASM introduced the Smart Partnership Initiative in collaboration with seven local universities – Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Universiti Malaya, Universiti Teknologi MARA, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and International Medical University.

Thus far, according to executive officer Hafiz Ambar, YPASM has provided 10 polar research grants, 10 fellowships and eight berth supports to research stations in Antarctica worth RM2.6mil mainly to young Malaysian scientists. Thirteen recipients from 28 YPASM grant projects have successfully participated in research expeditions to Antarctica and two recipients to the Arctic.

“This year, for the first time since Malaysia’s involvement in Antarctica, we will be attending the 20th Meeting of the Committee on Environmental Protection, which will be held in conjunction with the 40th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Beijing, China,” Hafiz shared about YPASM’s near future goals.

At this meeting, Malaysia – through the Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation (Mosti) and YPASM – would provide input and participate in the decision making process of the committee including those on the issues of Environmental Impact Assessment, protected areas, conservation of flora and fauna, environmental monitoring, marine pollution, wastes from past activities, historic sites and monuments, and non native species.

Mosti is spearheading the formulation of Antarctic Act as well as the preparation of the National Polar Roadmap. And Hafiz says that YPASM will play a major role in ensuring the implementation of the National Polar Roadmap by the Malaysian researchers working in these areas.

Meanwhile, YPASM will continue its ongoing projects, including its Students on Ice: Arctic Educational Expedition, through which the foundation sends secondary school students and teachers to the Arctic to provide them exposure to Malaysia’s involvement in polar regions. This programme is also targeted at inculcating interests among them to pursue science education.

Selection for the 2017 expedition is being made through a Polar Science Camp scheduled from May 4-6. Malaysian students and teachers will join more than 100 secondary school students from around the world, scientists, historians, travellers, authors and teachers throughout the educational expedition.

YPASM also conducts Malaysia’s Journey to the Ice: Women in Antarctica interactive motivational talks. Through this programme, Malaysian women researchers share their experiences, research and personal stories of how they faced challenges especially when they participated in the Antarctic research expeditions. So far, this programme has been held in 16 secondary schools.

There’s also the Polar ICE (Innovative Community Engagement) Challenge under the platform of MOSTI’s Social Innovation Fund. The winner of the Polar ICE challenge this year was a project by a documentarian, photographer and writer, Mahendran Balasupramaniam, entitled Abstracting Ice which combines visual documentary and photographic art to create an immersive exhibition on Antarctica. The grand prize was an invitation to join a group of about 100 distinguished artists, researchers and visionaries of all ages on an expedition to Antarctica from March 17-27.

For more on YPASM and its activities, visit www.ypasm.my or browse through its official FB page (search: Yayasan Penyelidikan Antartika Sultan Mizan).

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