...what kind of science happens in Antarctica? (with Elaine Krebs)

Ever Wonder? / August 16, 2023
Image attribution
Courtesy of Elaine Krebs
Image attribution
Courtesy of Elaine Krebs

On today’s episode we chat with Elaine Krebs (@elaine.explains), science educator and recent Antarctica explorer!

Do you ever wonder what kind of science happens in Antarctica?

Elaine received her master’s degree in Marine Biology and Environmental Biology from the University of Southern California. One of her current endeavors with the help of PolarTREC has allowed her to do what many only dream of, explore Antarctica.

In this episode, Elaine shares with us what lead her to becoming a science educator and end up doing research in Antarctica. She shares the most exciting travel stories about how she made it to Antarctica, how cold it was, what it was like being there and how she got to study tiny particles called Neutrinos with the IceCube Neutrino Observatory team!

So chill out, relax and join D Hunter and Elaine in their conversation!

Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email or voice recording to [email protected] to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes. 

Follow us on Twitter (@casciencecenter), Instagram (@californiasciencecenter), and Facebook (@californiasciencecenter). 


D Hunter White (00:04):

Hello, this is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm D Hunter White. Antarctica, Earth's fifth largest continent. Antarctica, 98% covered in ice. Antarctica, the largest and coldest desert on earth. But hold on, wait a minute. Antarctica is sometimes called the continent for science. Ever wonder... what kind of science happens in Antarctica? Well, I recently had the honor of speaking with science educator Elaine Krebs, about her science expedition to Antarctica. Elaine takes us on her journey. She tells us how she traveled to Antarctica and describes how cold Antarctica is. And Elaine explains some amazing neutrino research happening in Antarctica and why neutrinos are crucial to understanding the world that we can't see. So chill out, relax and join me in my conversation with Elaine Krebs.

D Hunter White (01:11):

Hello and welcome everybody. Hey, my name is D Hunter White. Just wanna welcome my guest today, informal science educator, Elaine Krebs. Elaine, thank you for being with us today.

Elaine Krebs (01:23):

Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited.

D Hunter White (01:26):

Well, we have so much to talk to you about now. We have to talk to you about your expedition to Antarctica, your work with Polar Trek. But Elaine, I met you here at the California Science Center as one of the educators here. For all of our listeners out there, give us an idea of how you started, how did you get started at the California Science Center?

Elaine Krebs (01:54):

So I got started way back when I was a master's student at USC. I was studying marine biology and I took a course on science communication to informal audiences. So as part of that class, I got to work with some awesome people over at the California Science Center, such as Dr. Chuck Kopczak and Gretchen Bazela. And part of the course was to design an exhibit and spend time volunteering here at the science center. And I absolutely loved it so much. I wanted to work there full-time. So I started as an exhibit development intern for two years and then I spent over six years as lead educator in the education department.

D Hunter White (02:39):

One of the things that you mentioned, you said informal science educator. What, what does that mean exactly?

Elaine Krebs (02:47):

Informal science education. It's a field of education that often happens outside of a classroom. So think afterschool programs, science centers, museums, parks, community centers. I do work inside of classrooms but often in a visitor or guest capacity. So I'll enter a classroom, do a presentation, or run an activity alongside and with the regular classroom teacher. So lots of really cool audiences, lots of really cool jobs and activities and events and venues. It's always different and super exciting and super fun.

D Hunter White (03:26):

Yeah, you sound really passionate about it. Did you always know you wanted to be an educator?

Elaine Krebs (03:31):

Definitely not. Growing up I wanted to be all sorts of types of scientists. I really wanted to be a paleontologist at one point, the first time I visited the field museum in Chicago and then I wanted to be a doctor for a while. And when I got to college, I was really excited about marine research. I loved being out on the boat or out on Catalina Island. But after taking that course in science communication, I was like, okay, I love science but I love talking about science and sharing science even more. So that is what I pursued as a career and it's been an adventure.

D Hunter White (04:10):

One of the really cool things you did was you went on an expedition to Antarctica to do research with PolarTREC. Let's talk a little bit about Antarctica. If my geography from elementary school serves me correctly, I believe that's the South Pole, is that correct?

Elaine Krebs (04:28):

Yes, the South Pole, the geographic South Pole is located on the continent of Antarctica at the bottom of the globe.

D Hunter White (04:35):

And how did you get there?

Elaine Krebs (04:38):

So getting to Antarctica is no easy feat. I flew from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand and then from Auckland, New Zealand to Christchurch, New Zealand, all on commercial aircraft, regular airplanes you might take across the ocean. Then from Christchurch, New Zealand, I took a plane to McMurdo Station, Antarctica and then from McMurdo Station to the South Pole Station. And both of those flights were on planes called LC-130s, which are similar to the C-130 or the Hercules, which are cargo planes often used by military aircraft. And the planes I took, they're exactly the same except they have skis on them. So the runways in Antarctica are just ice. So the planes need skis to successfully land on those runways.

D Hunter White (05:33):

That is something I would never imagine. I would never imagine that you would be landing on a plane with skis. What was that like?

Elaine Krebs (05:43):

Honestly, it was really, really smooth. I barely noticed we had landed. The part you notice is the braking because the C-130s have propellers on them and the propellers actually switch directions and that is how you stop so quickly. So you land, I landed and I barely noticed I had landed. And then you're jerked all the way forward as those propeller switch directions and that's when you know, okay, we're here.

D Hunter White (06:12):

Unbelievable. That's amazing! That I am not a very good plane rider. I don't do well. So yes, it's really great to hear your experiences from the safety of my office.

Elaine Krebs (06:25):


D Hunter White (06:25):

Now, while you were there in Antarctica, I'm sure you had many, many memorable experiences. Can you share one of those with us?

Elaine Krebs (06:34):

Yes. The most memorable thing, and the thing I keep coming back to is just how beautiful Antarctica is. It is for the most part untouched by humans because of the Antarctic treaty which agreed to not develop other than for science, but also just the fact it's super remote and so extreme. It's hard to build in Antarctica. So there are places where you look out and you do not see buildings or humans or anything for miles, especially at the South Pole. It's flat, it's on a plateau, so you just look for miles as far as the eye can see it's just white, snow and ice. And I found that extremely awesome, a-w-e-some. It really brought me to this point of like, wow, this is pure beauty. A little bit scary because if you go out too far, getting back might be hard. But mostly the just overwhelming sense of beauty at pure untouched nature.

D Hunter White (07:40):

Wow, beautiful. But the other thing that I kind of skipped around is that I know it's cold, it's gotta be cold, but how cold is like, is it cold? Is it really, really cold? How can I get a sense of that? Is there any way you can describe that for me?

Elaine Krebs (07:58):

It is definitely cold, especially to people in warmer climates. It's very cold. I grew up outside of Chicago in the Midwest, so it was pretty cold to me. And the way I describe it is cold is cold. If you imagine standing in a freezer, it is cold and the temperature numbers, really just dictate how long you can stay outside. So in McMurdo Station, it was around 20 to 30 degrees, which is relatively warm. So I needed just a medium jacket and some warm socks and hat and gloves and I could be outside for a couple hours no problem. At the South Pole, it was about negative 40 with wind. And wearing my heavier gear, my big red, my boots, my hood, my scarf, everything. I could be outside for about an hour or two just standing. Working, you get yourself a little warmer, you could be out a little longer. And those are summer temperatures, so moving into winter temperatures, that's when you get down to negative 90, negative 100, colder with windchill. And even with all your gear on, you can maybe last 10, 20 minutes outside. So it's very cold. My cold was I guess pretty cold comparatively to how cold Antarctic can get. But yeah, with the right gear it's manageable for sure.

D Hunter White (09:27):

Now I know you did your research with PolarTREC. Tell everyone listening, tell all of our listeners, what is PolarTREC? What do they do? I know they do some research there.

Elaine Krebs (09:37):

Yeah, so PolarTREC is this awesome organization that really is a matchmaking, organization as well as a promoter of polar science and polar education. So TREC, the T-R-E-C in PolarTREC stands for teachers and researchers educating and collaborating. So every year educators and research teams apply to PolarTREC and we're both interviewed and then we're matched together. So I applied to PolarTREC, four years. And then finally in 2019, I was interviewed and I matched with a research team called the IceCube Neutrino Observatory out of Wisconsin Madison. And so both the research team and the education team, right, need to be able to work together really well because the educator becomes part of the research team and learns the field research and participates and the research team as well, benefits from the educator being able to share and communicate some often really complicated science. So, PolarTREC put us together and also funded my trip to Antarctica with the IceCube Neutrino Observatory.

D Hunter White (10:56):

Nice. How did you connect with students and the public during your expedition?

Elaine Krebs (11:00):

So, I ran a couple different outreach projects on my trip to Antarctica. First, I visited a lot of classrooms before I left and I had the students write postcards. I also had staff from the Science Center write postcards to me as well. That then I answered and actually mailed back from the South Pole because there is a post office there, which was really, really cool. Something else I did was I posted daily blog updates. We called them journals on the PolarTREC website with pictures and updates on what was doing, what I was doing, what was happening. And the last really cool project I did was I actually hosted a live Zoom meeting from the South Pole, which is no easy feat because we only get about eight hours of good internet connectivity down there and it needs to be shared across the station. So I actually had to get special permission to hog more of the bandwidth to run a Zoom meeting. But everyone was super supportive and it was super amazing. There are over a hundred people I got to talk to on Zoom from the South Pole, which is still unbelievable to me.

D Hunter White (12:08):

That is exciting. So it sounds like, just communicating the educational aspects of your expedition, there can be some challenges in that. Sounds like there are technical challenges as well as weather challenges. Is that correct?

Elaine Krebs (12:23):

Definitely. Communication is no easy feat. Like I said, there's only about eight hours of good connectivity from a few satellites that we can actually see from Antarctica. Most satellites don't fly in range. And again, that needs to be shared across the station. So important things like scientific data obviously gets priority versus my personal email or anyone else's personal email. So it definitely needs to get shared across the station. And because we're relying on satellites, the timing also changes. So when I was there we had internet from about 2 AM to 10 AM. So if you needed to use internet, you needed to wake up early and get all your work done before 10 AM. Otherwise you weren't able to send an email until 2 AM the next day. So took a little bit of scheduling and planning, but it's definitely doable unless you wanna watch YouTube.

D Hunter White (13:24):

Now, earlier you mentioned partnering with IceCube Neutrino Observatory. I think this is about to go into an area that is not in my wheelhouse at all. So, let's hear your take on that. Tell us more about that research group.

Elaine Krebs (13:43):

IceCube Neutrino Observatory is an amazing, amazing research project. They are based out of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, but they involve multiple institutions across the world. All trying to study these tiny, tiny teeny tiny subatomic particles called neutrinos, which are basically tiny particles that come from outer space and hit earth. And they're hitting us right now. There are billions of neutrinos going through you every second, but they're so tiny and they travel so quickly. We actually haven't been able to study them that well. So what IceCube has done is IceCube has melted over 1500 sensors down into the ice below the South Pole. There's actually almost a mile and a half of ice below the South Pole. So when you're standing there, you're at about 9,000 feet elevation, just from ice. And that's why IceCube is located at the South Pole because there's a massive amount of space and the ice is extremely clear.So that's why we can have over 1500 sensors arranged in this one kilometer by one kilometer, by one kilometer deep area. So that's why it's called IceCube because it's one kilometer cubic kilometer of sensors. And all these sensors are now sitting under the ice at the South Pole hoping one of these teeny tiny neutrinos barreling at Earth from outer space. We're hoping it hits another molecule and when it hits another molecule, it will give off light, visible light that these sensors can pick up and then tell us, oh, this neutrino came from this way. And maybe if we see a lot of those from that direction or other research teams across the world have seen a lot of those, we can make some conclusions that, hey, something's going on over here. Let's take a look with other telescopes, figure out what that is. So statistically, lots of neutrinos are hitting us, but they're just going through matter. They're so fast and so tiny they can just go through. It's very rare that one of these interaction happens, but that's why we have such a big sensor down at the South Pole. So, such a big sensor increases our likelihood of picking up one of these really rare neutrino interactions. And coming up, IceCube is actually hoping to expand this cube, but make it even larger so we can pick up more and more of those interactions.

D Hunter White (16:30):

And so now this leads me to my next question. What exactly are we hoping to learn by studying neutrinos?

Elaine Krebs (16:37):

So neutrinos have this nickname of "cosmic messengers." So we're hoping that when we see a neutrino interaction, we see this trail of light, we can figure out where these cosmic events are happening. Otherwise, scientists are kind of just aimlessly pointing their telescopes into space hoping we stumble upon a supernova or a black hole. But these neutrinos can tell us, Hey, look over here, there's something going on. And we can alert other researchers across the world to look there and study more and learn about these cosmic events, which can then in turn lead us to understand more about our universe, how it formed. What's going on in stars and galaxies, far, far away, all these questions that as humans we're curious about. But it's very hard and very slow to gain any answers to that. So neutrinos can give us information we can't otherwise get from just pointing a camera or a telescope out into space.

D Hunter White (17:48):

Got it. So it sounds like the neutrinos act almost like a signpost or a guide for us here on earth and say, okay, if there's something happening in this direction, you may wanna point that telescope over there so that you can see and study it a little bit more in depth.

Elaine Krebs (18:10):

Yeah, sometimes I think we forget space is a 3D object. So, not only do we need a direction, but we need a depth to study. So, telescopes just pointing, you know, at the moon, that's only a certain distance away from earth, but behind the moon there are light years and light years of other particles and stars and planets and galaxies and far, far, far back there. So, it's not just a matter of taking pictures across the sky, we're looking deep into space as well.

D Hunter White (18:44):

Got it. Now, what are you gonna say to somebody, let's say like me just hanging out on the beach in California and I'm thinking to myself, why are we studying these neutrinos? I'm just chilling here. What does this have to do? All this outer space stuff? What would you say to someone like that?

Elaine Krebs (19:02):

You know, that's a fair question and for me, I think the impact the science has just more on a metaphysical level in this sense of my place and purpose in the universe and what's around us and how it all formed. So, it may not appear to have a direct impact on your daily life, but neutrinos are really crucial to just understanding more about the world that we cannot see. Neutrinos move so quickly. We actually still haven't even been able to weigh them. We don't know their mass. There's some guesses, but we don't know. And just this idea of what else don't we know? And the answer to so many questions: like how did the universe form? What set off the Big Bang? What was the early star formation like? As we're learning about neutrinos, I'm already thinking like, what's beyond that? What's even smaller? What do those relate to? It's really fascinating to me.

D Hunter White (20:03):

Did PolarTREC change the way you started teaching and sharing information or even your approach to science or this whole expedition? Did it change the way you share information about science?

Elaine Krebs (20:17):

Yeah, I think a lot of the science education we do, especially towards younger audiences, I think is a very matter of fact. It's like this is gravity, this is what we know about it and this is the way it is. And being a part of PolarTREC reminded me that there's so much we don't know even about gravity. There are microscopic changes in gravity across the world. And being able to still bring that up and to still share with students and learners of all ages that like this isn't it like, yes, this is what we know about insert topic here, about gravity, about star formation, about chemical reactions, but there's so much more we're learning and scientists are still discovering this and this and bringing up the fact that science is a process. It's not facts. We're still learning. And I think that's the part that is really exciting, especially to younger generations considering a career in science. It's not all figured out. There is so much more we don't know that I have tried to share more now, be just more clear about the process of science and the field of science in general.

D Hunter White (21:33):

Well, you're really doing a lot. Let our listeners know where we can find you.

Elaine Krebs (21:39):

Yeah, so I'm on Facebook and Instagram and YouTube @Elaine (My first name), e-l-a-i-n-e . explains, e-x-p-l-a-i-n-s.

D Hunter White (21:54):

Thank you so much, Elaine. Thank you for taking some time and teaching me a little bit more about Neutrinos.

Elaine Krebs (22:00):

Thank you so much for having me. It's been a blast.

D Hunter White (22:04):

And that's our show. Thanks for listening. Until next time, keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Karen Arroyo, along with Jennifer Aguirre, D. Hunter White, and Perry Roth-Johnson. Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We'll drop a new episode every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcast. It really helps other people discover our show. Have a question you've been wondering about. Send us an email or voice recording to [email protected] to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.