Female Glider Technicians Break Scientist Stereotypes by Film Student Gabriela Elise

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 12.02.58 PM

Nicole Couto & Filipa Carvalho prep a glider robot at Palmer Station

Name a scientist. Who came to mind first? Was it a man? The sciences have been male-dominated since their inception, but that is changing. Incredibly intelligent, talented women are making strides in the sciences, and in turn, becoming inspirations for girls in schools today.

Nicole Couto and Filipa Carvalho are two Ph.D. candidates at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences of Rutgers University. They’ve made the trek down to Antarctica to study why and how climate change is affecting the Antarctic ecosystem. They capture thousands of microscopic organisms from beneath the ice, they use radioactive material to run tests, and they send robots on underwater missions.

As the editor of a short film centered on these two scientists, my goal was to illustrate the excitement and passion they have for their work. I wanted to create a story that would keep an audience’s interest when talking about phytoplankton, but to also show the human part of science. Nicole and Filipa are that human element. We see the passion they have for their work, we learn of their gratitude to be working on such a prestigious mission, and we see the fun that they have.


Glider technicians deploying their robot off a zodiac near Palmer Station.

When girls in middle school or even grad school watch the short film, I want them to be inspired by Nicole and Filipa. These two women entered a male-dominated field and rocked it! Those young women in the audience can do the same, whether it’s oceanography or filmmaking, engineering or law. Now name a scientist. Was she a woman?

Avian Island Travels

The research team is currently heading back to the United States.  The following blogs will feature some of the work and observations from their travels.

On January 18, the research team visited Avian Island.   Avian Island (Latitude 67°46′ S, Longitude 68°54′ W, 0.49 km2), is a very small island situated in northwestern Marguerite Bay,  south of Adelaide Island on the western side of the central Antarctic Peninsula (see map):

Avian Island is a small island south of Adelaide Island. Avian Island does not appear on this map because it is only 0.7 miles (1.2 km) long.

This trip to Avian Island allowed the AQ team to rendezvous with two birders (Jen and Cameron) who had been studying these animals for the last 5 days.  This is a special place for scientists interested in birds because Avian Island is home to 35,000-70,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins. If you recall, we encountered these pengiuns in an earlier post.  Both parents and their babies were filmed at Avian Island. When they arrived, the weather on Avian Island was snowing, wet and cold and these penguins don’t like snow. Adélie penguins are designed for colder, drier environments and the snow can be harmful to their eggs and nests.

Adélie peguin parent and baby on Avian Island. Jan. 2013

Filming had its challenges too.  Dena Seidel and Chris Linder report that they stepped in and out of puddles of penguin pee for hours filming the birds and elephant seals.

Dena Seidel filming on Avian Island. Jan 2013.

For more technical information about Avian Island, see:

Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) Bulletin 150, 2003:


Chipping Away at the Ice

Let’s tell it like it is: women are greatly underrepresented in many fields of science and engineering although great gains in women’s participation have been seen in the biological sciences over the past three decades.

What you may not know is that in the world’s film industry, women are also highly underrepresented.  In 2011, women made up only 5% of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.

Today, more than just the ice is beginning to melt.  Women’s participation in marine science and filmmaking is increasing and this is seen in the work captured by the Antarctic Quest Team.

Women make up half of the research and film team.   Among them are zooplankton expert Debbie Steinberg, penguin specialist Donna Fraser, and phytoplankton expert Grace Saba.  In the previous blog, you met Jen Mannas, who is a wildlife biologist.

Fig 1. Grace Saba studies phytoplankton. The microscope is a key research tool.

Fig. 2. Donna Fraser’s research involves studying penguims at places such as Humble Island.

Fig. 3 Debbie Steinberg works with a team to collect zooplankton in Antarctic Waters.

Also aboard is award winning filmmaker, Dena Seidel.  Seidel has traveled over 9,000 miles to arrive in the Antarctic, pressing through the ice to record unfolding climate change and its effect on this rapidly deteriorating land.  She too, along with the female scientists on board, are heralding in a new era.  Beyond the ice in Antarctica, lies another story.  Women are breaking new grounds, pressing beyond the reaches of society’s confines and contributing to our greater understanding of Antarctica and our changing planet.

Fig. 4. Dena Seidel, documentary filmmaker, on her trip to Antarctica.


For other stories about women in marine sciences, see:

United Nations (UNESCO) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, Women Marine Scientists:



How do you study whales?

Dena Seidel has been learning how whale biologist Dave Johnston studies whales.  Dr. Johnston and  Zach Swaim study humpback whales in the waters near Palmer Station using zodiacs and Dena has captured film footage during this research.  Dr. Johnston has a license from NOAA to tag and take biopsy samples. Biopsies are small tissue samples.  Since you cannot get really close to these large animals, sampling is done from a distance (see photo).  These methods will allow  this research group to track these whales to learn more about their feeding behavior and diet.


Zach Swaim sends a tag in the direction of the humpback whale in this NOAA-approved research studies. (Photo: Dena Seidel)


Phytoplankton Sampling Begins

Dena Seidel reports that despite the weather, Oscar Schofield and Grace Saba, both of IMCS and of the LTER phytoplankton group, keep sampling.

In the photo below, you can see Oscar (brown coat) and Grace (black coat) on deck in 50 knot winds collecting water that has been incubating to test their phytoplankton and chlorophyll levels.  Phytoplankton a very small photosynthetic organisms that use chlorophyll to capture energy from sunlight for photosynthesis.

Phytoplankton sampling on the deck of the Gould. Jan 2013 (Photo: Chris Linder)


So what are phytoplankton and why are they so important?

Phytoplankton are photosynthesizing microscopic organisms that live near the surface of the water.  Phytoplankton use sun light to take up and convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into biomass (cellular components of each cell) and oxygen. Because they are able to use the sun’s energy to create biomass, they are called primary producers.  Despite being limited by sunlight for half of the year, Antarctic phytoplankton (especially along the western Antarctic Peninsula) are among the most prodigious primary producers in the ocean. Furthermore, their role as primary producers of biomass makes their abundance or decline critical to the health and well being of Antarctic ecosystems.

In addition to their role at the base of the Antarctic marine ecosystem, the fate of phytoplankton biomass is crucial to understanding climate change feedback loops. By conducting experiments to study phytoplankton physiology and working with other components of the LTER (such as ecologists studying microbes and zooplankton), we are also trying to develop a clear picture of the fate of phytoplankton biomass once it enters the Antarctic ecosystem. Whether this phytoplankton biomass is recycled by bacteria, grazed by krill, or merely settles to the sea floor has significant consequences for not only the Antarctic food web, but also for global biogeochemistry and our understanding of climate change dynamics.

For more information on the LTER phytoplankton research, see:




Filming and Learning in Antarctica

Dena Seidel reports the “science continues to be amazing.”

Here are 2 photos from Antarctica – one taken on Humble Island interviewing penguin scientist Donna Fraser (you may recognize the penguins from an earlier posting) and the other taken on the glacier behind Palmer station with scientist Reide Corbett, who is studying glacial runoff but is not part of the Long Term Ecological Research project.

Dena Seidel filming Donna Fraser with Adélie penguins, Humble Island, Jan. 2013. (Photo: Chris Linder)

Dena Seidel interviewing Reide Corbett and graduate student Leigha Peterson behind Palmer Station, Jan. 2013.(Photo: Chris Linder)



Dena Seidel

Arriving at Palmer

The Gould arrived at Palmer Station, on the Western Antarctic Peninsula, last Friday and Dena Seidel sent these photos over the weekend.  She writes, “Here is a photo of us arriving at Palmer station, a small science outpost filled with amazing scientists and impressive science labs. Only 30 some people live here year round but the work they are doing is very important from phytoplankton research to the biochemistry of melting glacial ice”

Arriving at Palmer Station, January 2013.


A view of the water and ice looking toward a nearby island. January 2013.

The Laurence M Gould Research Vessel docked at Palmer Station, Antarctica, January 2013

Meet the Adélie Penguins

Dear all,

We spent today (January 3) filming Donna Fraser and her team tagging Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) on Humble Island, a small island off of Palmer station. This population of Antarctic penguins is rapidly declining due to retreating sea ice. They are dependent on the sea ice, and the accompanying krill, for their survival. The penguins had many chicks that they were shading from the hot sun.  Here are three photos taken from the film footage.

Scientist Donna Fraser with the Adélie penguins on Humble Island (Photo: Dena Seidel)


Adélie penguin research involves measurements such as this one. Humble Island, January 2013. (Photo: Dena Seidel)


Penguin Hill on Humble Island, January 2013. (Photo: Dena Seidel)


We are now at Palmer station until Saturday morning when we begin the month long science cruise. This is all quite amazing and our students will learn a great deal from working this project.

Dena Seidel

For more on information on Adélie penguins (for a general audience including kids) see:




For penguin and conservation enthusiasts, see:




Where is Palmer Station?

Where is Palmer station located?

  • Latitude: -64.77417° (south)
  • Longitude: -64.05450° (west)

Palmer Station is located by Hero Inlet, South Arthur Harbor, a protected harbor on the southwest coast of Anvers Island off the Western Antarctic Peninsula. The station, built on solid rock near a glacier, is a cluster of approximately five buildings. The station operates in conjunction with a research vessel, the ARSV Laurence M. Gould.   Approximately 40-45 people occupy Palmer in the summer. The winter-over population varies from 15 to 30.


Palmer Station, Antarctica