Engineering major to spend semester
in the planet’s most remote region © June 4, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Electrical and computer engineering major Stephen Emmons will postpone the first semester of his junior year to join a research team in Antarctica.

photo by Jay EricsonElectrical and computer engineering major Stephen Emmons will postpone the first semester of his junior year to join a research team in Antarctica.

Stephen Emmons, a member of Norwich University’s Class of 2012, is in for a life-altering experience at the bottom of the world.

Emmons, an electrical and computer engineering major from Holliston, Mass., will be part of a scientific team that will explore one of most desolate areas on Earth, the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, for two months in the fall of 2010. Led by Dale Andersen, the principal investigator at the SETI Institute’s Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, the team will investigate the microbial ecosystem of Lake Joyce, one of several perennially ice-covered lakes in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

“Initially, I was interested in this because I’ve always thought it would be really cool to go to Antarctica,” said Emmons, who will work as an intern at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., for about two months before leaving for McMurdo Station, the main U.S. base on the continent. “I thought I’d take advantage of that and also get to work for NASA. It adds a little to my resume and any opportunity for hands-on experience before I graduate is worthwhile.”

I’ll be working with men who are at the top of their field and getting to know what some of the possibilities are for me outside of school. This is the opportunity of a lifetime.

~ Stephen Emmons,
engineering student

The lakes in the dry valley, said Andersen, are analogs both for the conditions for life on earth 3.5 billion years ago, and for conditions under which life might have existed on the planet Mars.

“The lakes give a pretty good representation of earth’s earliest biosphere,” said Andersen. “That also begs the question: Since there was life on earth at the time there was liquid water on Mars, did life evolve there as well?”

Modeling of the Martian climate carried out by Andersen’s colleague, Chris McKay of the Ames Center, indicates that any environment on the fourth planet capable of supporting liquid on the planet’s surface would have to been ice-covered for extended periods of time.

“Any life that was there would have had to cope with conditions very similar to what we find in the Dry Valleys,” said Andersen.

Emmons’ opportunity was born, in large part, because of James Pritzker, the founder and president of the Tawani Foundation, which has provided funding for Andersen’s research. A friend and trustee of Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college, and a supporter of its Sullivan Museum and History Center, Pritzker’s enthusiasm for the University led Andersen to consider recruiting a Norwich student.

Andersen required a student with a strong grounding in science or engineering and the capability and willingness to work in a team under extremely demanding conditions, explained Dave Westerman, a Norwich geology professor and associate vice president for research. Emmons, who has some experience with winter camping as a Boy Scout, fit the bill both academically and psychologically.

“Steve is the kind of person you meet and you think, ‘I’d like to have this guy on my team and have him be part of this adventure,’” said Westerman.

Before starting his internship at NASA Ames, Emmons will spend the summer training at an Air Force base in Alabama under the ROTC program. He is taking one online class this summer and will probably take courses the following summer to make up for being away. Emmons’ graduation will be delayed a semester.

In October, Emmons and the team will travel to New Zealand and then to McMurdo. The first two weeks will be spent gathering an inventory of equipment and on survival training, helicopter safety and an orientation that will involve setting up and staying at a small camp on the ice shelf. If the team is “lucky,” said Andersen, they will experience white-out conditions during training.

“It’s lucky because if a storm comes through it will give them an idea of what they’ll experience on the ice, but in a more controlled situation,” he said.

Emmons will participate in every activity except diving beneath the ice. He believes his engineering background has prepared him for collecting data and operating and maintaining equipment such as ice drills and sensors. Once the expedition is underway in mid October, Emmons and the team will be out on [and under] the ice for eight weeks during the Antarctic spring. Except for a satellite phone, they will have no contact with the outside world.

“I’ll be working with men who are at the top of their field and getting to know what some of the possibilities are for me outside of school,” said Emmons. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

This will be Andersen’s 14th trip to Antarctica since he first went as a student in the late 1970s.

“I was an undergraduate when I started doing this, and I’m still doing it,” he said. “It is a life-changing experience. That’s what happened to me, and most of the people I work with had the same thing happen to them.”