Students and faculty at ASU have been digging out their hats, scarves and boots this year as Arizona experienced a colder-than-usual winter. But for Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, ASU’s senior vice president for Knowledge Enterprise Development, this winter has felt positively balmy after a recent trip to Antarctica.
Panchanathan was invited to visit Antarctica with the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of his role on the National Science Board. Board members, appointed by the president, advise on national policies regarding research and education in science and engineering.
While there, Panchanthan visited multiple research sites and learned about the NSF-funded work happening at each — exploring stars in the night sky, ozone in the atmosphere, life in an extreme ecosystem and neutrinos bombarding the Earth, among others.
“The most exciting part for me was to find the science that’s going on that is done by our graduate students and scientists,” Panchanathan said. “The level of commitment that they have to pursue science, that they will spend that much time in Antarctica, was truly inspirational.”
Although Antarctica is a harsh environment, it is an excellent location for many types of research, according to the NSF:
• Antarctica is an ideal astronomical observatory, with long periods of darkness in the Antarctic winter and no interfering city lights.
• Antarctica is where most of the world’s meteorites are found.
• The Southern Ocean is the largest and most fertile of the world's oceans. Its cold, constant temperatures provide a unique opportunity to study "deep sea" life in relatively shallow water.
• With almost 10 percent of Earth's continental crust, Antarctica holds substantial geologic records of plate tectonic processes, evolution and dispersal of life, and evidence of past environmental conditions.
• In some areas, such as the Dry Valleys, erosion is extremely limited, so fossils of past life have not been destroyed.
• The Dry Valleys are also ideal for studying adaptation to extreme environments.
As Panchanathan was leaving Antarctica, an ASU faculty member, Chris Groppi, and his graduate student Kristina Davis were just arriving. The School of Earth and Space Exploration researchers are among multiple ASU faculty, students and alumni who have visited the coldest continent to learn more about our planet and our universe.