Indiana State University Newsroom

Night and ice: ISU students conduct research in Southern Ocean, visit Antarctica

September 10, 2008

After a quick step start, Darin Lang flung himself stomach first on the sled and slid down the Antarctic glacier he had just hiked up.

“That was extreme,” said the Indiana State University sophomore, who went to the southernmost continent as part of a team of researchers. “It was almost solid ice all the way down, so I probably got to 20 miles an hour just going down on this sled and at the very bottom there was a pile of snow before a pile of rocks. It was slow down in the snow and hope you don’t hit the rocks.”

It was just one more amazing day for the geology student from Terre Haute who traveled by ship to Antarctica with an ISU professor and other students for some first-hand oceanography experience in the Southern Ocean.

ISU associate professor of geology Tony Rathburn took Jason Waggoner, an ISU graduate student from Hutsonville, Ill., to Antarctica in April and then returned with Lang and Ron Taylor, a junior geology student from West Terre Haute, in July to obtain core samples of the ocean’s floor near Antarctica.

“Our purpose was to look at the responses of seafloor communities to environmental changes and, in this case, seasonal changes,” Rathburn said. “So even though we’re looking at the bottom of the ocean 1,300 meters below the surface where it is perpetually dark, there are seasonal changes. Seasonality in the deep sea is not the same as the inter-annual changes that we experience on land, but seasons occurring because of changes in the amount of food that occurs in the water column. Those changes get transferred to the availability of food on the seafloor.”

Because of the Antarctic extremes with 24 hours of sunlight during its summer to perhaps ice cover in the winter made it an ideal place to obtain samples. The April trip was just after a bloom time finished and the trip in July was during the Antarctica winter.

“The creatures we study, single-celled organisms called “foraminifera,” are very sensitive to environmental change and we use them to assess not only changes in the modern realm, but also changes in the past (by examining fossil foraminifera) so we can assess how environments are changed through time, how climate has changed through time, how the ocean has changed through time,” Rathburn said. “It’s important for us to understand the modern realm so that we can use that information to assess the past.”

The ocean, which makes up about 70 percent of the earth, includes the deep sea which is the largest and least explored habitat on Earth, making it an intriguing area of research for the students.

“The ocean is probably one of the last frontiers that we have,” Taylor said. “Just to be a part of it, trying to discover what’s going on there under the water is unbelievable.”

Giving students those opportunities for exploration is Rathburn’s aim.

“My philosophy and the philosophy of the geology and anthropology programs at ISU is one where we want to get students out in the field, collecting samples involved with research to give them the experience and the experiential learning that will help them much more than just classroom or laboratory activities alone,” Rathburn said about taking students on the National Science Foundation-funded trip. “I think it’s critical especially in fields like geology, biology, anthropology which involve field-intensive courses and lead to field-intensive careers. If you’re just in the classroom, which is the traditional approach, you’re not going to really know what it’s like to be out there and you’re not going to have the degree of confidence that practical experience provides.”

For Lang, it’s that type of hands-on learning that is exciting as a young undergraduate.

“I never thought when I enrolled at ISU that I’d be going to Antarctica a year into it,” he said. “Not too many other universities in the nation would be taking a freshman or a sophomore to Antarctica.”

Taylor agreed with the importance of practical learning.

“Hands-on activities help reinforce things that you read in a book, because a lot of people will read it in a book and it’s just words on a page,” he said. “When you actually go out and see what’s going on and the magnitude of the whole process, it helps define everything that people just read about and I think it helps put everything into proper context.”

It is something that they think will help them when they apply for graduate school and look for further research opportunities.

“This looks excellent on a resume,” Lang said. “It’s an experience I’ll probably never get again in my life and it gave me a better outlook on everything that I will get to do in the future, staying in this field.”

“Normally, I’d have to wait until I was in graduate school, going for my master’s or my PhD to even be considered for something like this,” Taylor said. “So when it comes time for me to go to graduate school, I will definitely be better prepared to compete with other students from all across the nation or even international students.”

Rathburn and the students flew from Indianapolis to Dallas before flying to Santiago, Chile, and on to Punta Arenas, Chile, before boarding the Laurence M. Gould research vessel and heading through the Straits of Magellan and then into the Drake Passage.

“The Drake Passage is one of the roughest seas in the world and that’s when everything really got exciting,” said Taylor. “It was common to see 30 to 40 foot swells. The wind was merciless. Basically, you never got a good, full-night’s sleep because you were constantly waking up to keep from falling out of the bed. I ended up getting a knot on my head by getting thrown up against the bulk heads while I was asleep.”

Waggoner had a different experience when he went to Antarctica in April.

“Once we got into the Drake, we had heard stories about it being the roughest passage in the world and our voyage across was fairly subtle,” he said. “I go and make the mistake of saying out loud to everybody that we need to have a rough crossing on the way back. We’re down here in Antarctica, why would we come all this way and not live the Drake in its entirety' On the way back, we did have a bit rougher seas and the marine techs made it a point to use one of the white boards aboard the ship to make my comment known to everyone on board so that they could kind of razz me in passing every day.”

The students would work in the four hours of muted, early morning-type sunlight and on through the darkness, with falling snow and icebergs floating by, almost near enough to touch.

“Every day on the way down there I’m waking up early and going to the bridge, getting the binoculars and just looking around,” Lang said. “Every day it seemed like something new would come because the farther south we got, the more ice we’d see, the fewer animals we’d see.”

Kitted out in cold-weather gear provided by the National Science Foundation, the students said they didn’t find the cold unbearable.

“When you go down there, you expect to walk out and it’s instantly freezing, but it wasn’t the case,” Taylor said. “It was cold, obviously, but it was actually a lot more manageable than I thought…The only thing that was really bad was when you’re down on the deck. There were a couple of times where we were working on the equipment and I would have to get on my knees or actually lay on my back on the deck of the ship. I had waves going up my pant legs as I was trying to replace a piece of equipment, and washing over me as I was laying on the deck, working on equipment and the water’s very cold.”

Each of the students called the research, cruise and stay in Antarctica as an opportunity of a lifetime.

“There were several of us that would gather on the back of the ship and just stare,” Waggoner said. “It was sort of unusual to have a group of five or six people together and not have a conversation, but there were really no words that could be said. You’re just kind of standing there in awe and silence of what you’re seeing.”

He described the Antarctic scenery as amazing.

“I was a bit surprised by what it was in terms of seeing so much rock, so much granite and then just completely covered with ice and snow,” Waggoner said. “When you are at the top of the glacier, when you’re able to kind of look out and see sightes that are kind of beyond amazement.”

“As soon as I got off the boat and actually set foot on Antarctica, I basically just stopped and just thought, I’m doing something that very few people in the world have ever done and that moment right there made the whole trip worthwhile,” Taylor added.


For more of Darin Lang’s impressions of his trip, see his blog:

Contact: Tony Rathburn, associate professor at Indiana State University, at

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or


Cutline: Jason Waggoner, ISU graduate student of geology, and Tony Rathburn, ISU associate professor of geology, near Palmer Station, Antarctica. Courtesy photo


Cutline: Students on the research cruise to Antarctica work to remove core samples from the multi-corer aboard the Laurence M. Gould research vessel. Courtesy photo


Cutline: An iceberg floating in the Southern Ocean on a scientific research trip to Antarctica. Courtesy photo.


Cutline: View of Antarctica through research ship’s porthole. Courtesy photo


Cutline: Ron Taylor, ISU junior geology major, poses aboard the Laurence M. Gould research vessel. Courtesy photo


Cutline: Darin Lang, ISU sophomore geology major, aboard the Laurence M. Gould research vessel. Courtesy photo


Cutline: Palmer Station, Antarctica

Story Highlights

ISU associate professor of geology Tony Rathburn took Jason Waggoner, an ISU graduate student, to Antarctica in April and then returned with Darin Lang, a sophomore geology major, and Ron Taylor, a junior geology student, in July to obtain core samples of the ocean's floor near Antarctica.

See Also:

‘Steel Magnolias’ kicks off Crossroads Rep’s season

Top seniors honored

More than 1,800 Sycamores participate in commencement

New math teaching program OK’d

Crossroads Rep relocates to the Dreiser stage this summer

Fine Arts Building, Sycamore Towers Dining renovations OK’d by state