Anna Silvis and Matthew Danielson studying sediment cores the Oregon State University Marine and Geology Repository

Geologist Anna Sivils (right) discusses a sediment core at the Oregon State University Marine and Geology Repository with her adviser, Philip Bart (left).Credit: Colby Knight

Anna Sivils couldn’t wait for the voyage to Antarctica. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the geologist and master’s student at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge was set to collect data from the waters off Antarctica from January to March 2021. Or so she thought.

A few weeks before the departure date, Sivils received news that the trip was off. A crucial connection point in New Zealand had insufficient hotel space for the researchers’ mandatory COVID-19 quarantine, so the team had to postpone.

“I remember feeling really disappointed and sad,” says Sivils, who eventually devised a workaround so she could continue collecting data for her master’s thesis.

Sivils is one of many student scientists whose polar fieldwork and academic trajectory were disrupted by COVID-19. Shutdowns and travel restrictions delayed crucial data collection for some, pushing back graduation dates. Others have graduated, but without ever carrying out fieldwork in the frigid regions near Earth’s poles.

Leaders in the field discussed the challenges facing trainees at an advisory committee meeting of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs last month. They concluded that the community should ‘bend’ its definition of polar research to keep students on track, but that it should also embrace the opportunity to re-evaluate how students are trained.

Nature spoke to scientists around the world to see how they have adapted graduate training to the uncertain times brought by the pandemic, and what solutions — such as simulations of polar environments — are worth carrying forwards.

Sample sharing

Getting close to Earth’s poles to conduct research is no simple task. Expeditions require international cooperation, vast amounts of money and advanced planning.

“You can’t start your project in January and expect to go to the Antarctic later that year,” says Daniela Liggett, a social scientist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. For Antarctica in particular, most trips are scheduled a few years in advance, so doctoral or master’s students hoping to collect data on the continent typically need an academic adviser with pre-existing plans to go.

Sediment cores on shelves in a large storage facility at the Oregon State University Marine and Geology Repository

Sivils rescued her master’s thesis project by using historical marine sediment cores stored at the Oregon State University Marine and Geology Repository.Credit: Anna Sivils

Liggett co-led the Antarctic COVID-19 Project — supported by the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) — which surveyed researchers in late 2020 to see how the pandemic was affecting them and how SCAR could help. The results indicated that COVID-19 disproportionately affected early-career researchers, defined as those within five years of finishing a PhD.

To negate the pandemic’s effects, respondents called for extra funding to support their work, as well as the sharing of electronic data and physical samples collected by others.

Such pre-existing ‘legacy’ data enabled Sivils to continue her research. After learning she couldn’t go to Antarctica to collect her own data from the Ross Sea, south of New Zealand, she pivoted her master’s thesis to analyse marine sediment cores collected there in the 1990s and housed at Oregon State University’s Marine and Geology Repository in Corvallis.

This shift in her project added an extra year to Sivils’ master’s programme. To pay for it, she had to take a full-time job. But she sees a silver lining in focusing on the stored, historical samples. “We’ve had the past few years to really look at all the legacy data and get a better idea of ‘What are the missing pieces?’” Sivils says, adding that it will help the team to zero in on which areas of the Ross Sea it wants to prioritize once it finally gets there.

‘Democratic’ research

Other polar researchers faced with pandemic delays turned to data available online to keep projects on track, an uptick noticed by Anton Van de Putte, Antarctic regional manager for the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the Ocean Biodiversity Information System databases. Since the pandemic began, he has received an increased number of requests for assistance with finding data in these repositories. “It’s clear that people started working together more,” he says.

Sharing data in online repositories makes polar research more “democratic” because it means scientists don’t all need to go on expensive expeditions, Van de Putte says. “It allows people from a diverse background to engage and be active in that sphere.”

Simulations of polar conditions have also helped some student researchers to continue their work. Bomi Kim, an ice chemist and doctoral student at the Korea Polar Research Institute in Incheon, has been studying how climate change affects the microstructure of polar ice — but her experiments have taken place in the laboratory rather than in Antarctica. She has been able to replicate several of Antarctica’s environmental factors, including sunlight patterns, in a temperature-controlled space.

Reimagining expeditions

Still others have been resuming studies by finding proxies for the polar environment. Philip Bart, a marine geologist at LSU and Sivils’ adviser, had been planning to take undergraduate students on his 2021 Antarctic trip. The voyage’s postponement prompted him to reimagine Antarctic fieldwork for budding scientists. Within the next year, he will travel with a group of undergraduates from several universities to a glacial valley in central California. The trip is being funded by the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates programme.

The site in California contains geological features that Bart’s research team normally studies in Antarctica, such as debris piles left behind by glaciers. “This is analogous in that it’s a nicely preserved record of a glacial retreat,” he says.

Although the pandemic has brought innovation and cost savings to polar research training, “there is still no perfect alternative to fieldwork”, Kim says. For instance, she can’t reproduce every Antarctic condition with her simulated laboratory setup and will still need to travel to confirm her results.

Sivils, who will graduate during LSU’s coming spring term, also worries about students missing the adventure of setting foot in a polar region. Even though the data she collects won’t contribute to her own thesis, she will join the rescheduled trip to Antarctica during the 2022–23 field season.

“I have to go to Antarctica,” Sivils says. “I cannot let this slip away — it’s been my dream for so long.”