9 Secrets of Antarctic Scientists

A scientist monitors one of the world's largest Adélie penguin colonies near Cape Crozier, Antarctica.
A scientist monitors one of the world's largest Adélie penguin colonies near Cape Crozier, Antarctica.
Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and sometimes the darkest place on Earth. And yet hundreds of people go there each year to conduct scientific research and work as support staff at dozens of stations scattered across the continent. In summer, the high season for polar activity, the sun never sets, offering scientists and support teams an opportunity to play soccer on the ice or sunbathe in blinding, cloud-free rays. Winter envelops the land in frigid darkness—and inspires the few "winter-overs" to indulge in naked footraces around the station. Mental Floss spoke to a few Antarctic scientists about what it's really like to carry out research there, including the hacks that help them survive the elements.

1. THEY LEARN ON THE FLY.

Scientists participating in the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), which runs all of the American research and operations on the continent, go through an introductory briefing about living and working at the three American stations: McMurdo, the largest, which is located on Ross Island; Palmer, on Anvers Island off the Antarctica Peninsula; and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

But with so many complex protocols needed for daily life, new arrivals often find themselves on a steep learning curve. "There's no manual for a lot of things," Michelle LaRue, an ecologist who studies Adélie and emperor penguins and seals in the Southern Ocean and is often based at McMurdo, tells Mental Floss. "There are appointments for everything—food, field supplies, et cetera—and you need a certain amount of lead time before you get into the field. I quickly learned that even though you think you're ready, there's something else you're missing. Thankfully the support crew there is amazing. I don't know what we would have done without them."

2. THEY HAVE TO PACK CAREFULLY.

Gathering everything for an extended mission can be tricky if you can't depend on regular resupply shipments. "Packing for 18 months away is a total nightmare. Ever tried to work out how many tampons you might need for that long? Or conditioner?" ecologist Jess Walkup tells Mental Floss. Walkup began her career with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) studying albatrosses on South Georgia and is now the base commander at the BAS's Rothera station leading the 2018 wintering team.

"I ran out of anti-perspirant on one trip, and that was awful," she says. "Thankfully I was on an island with just three men and thousands of stinky seals, so no one seemed to notice."

3. THEY HACK THEIR CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS.

Scientists and support staff who serve in the Antarctic summer, from October through March, often contend with round-the-clock daylight. Many bring eye masks and blackout curtains so they can retain their regular sleep-wake schedule—but it's tempting to want to stay up. "After working all day, all I want to do is catch up with friends or go hiking. Time gets away from you pretty quickly, and before you know it, you're going to bed way later than you should," LaRue says.

The Antarctic winter, however, is another matter. The sun doesn't rise for several months, leaving the entire continent in extreme darkness (except for the twinkling of stars and the aurora australis). "I found that I was shattered all day and then slept badly at night," Walkup says. "In the early afternoon I would have a massive slump and feel like it was 3 a.m. and I had been awake for a week." She adjusted by using a SAD lamp on her desk and getting into a routine of winding down and going to bed at the same time each night. On the base, she says, "Your bed is one of the only places you can get some time alone."

4. THEY HAVE STRANGE TASTES IN MOVIES.

The Milky Way and aurora australis over the South Pole
The Milky Way and aurora australis illuminate the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in winter.
Patrick Cullis, National Science Foundation

It's not all work and no play for Antarctic scientists and staff. The isolation and rough conditions create a sense of camaraderie that is celebrated at certain times of the year. To mark Midwinter's Day in the middle of June (the point when the sun begins its return back south), the BAS bases, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and many others watch The Thing ("the original, obviously!" Walkup says). In John Carpenter's 1982 horror film, a parasitic alien invades an Antarctic base and steadily takes over the minds of the researchers stationed there, with much gore, violence, and paranoia. Winter-overs also watch the 1980 classic The Shining, a similarly chilly flick featuring an unhealthy dose of insanity.

In August, many of the Antarctic stations compete in the 48-Hour Winter Film Festival, in which teams submit short films that contain five key elements and are made in less than 48 hours. "We then watch all the submissions and vote on the winners under various categories, like at the Oscars. It’s a great way to learn about the international Antarctic community and see the inside of other stations," Walkup says. (Watch a selection from the 2016 festival on Vimeo).

5. THEY MAKE TIME TO PARTY.

Sure, scientists spend many hours tracking neutrinos, conducting wildlife surveys, collecting ice cores, and fulfilling other objectives. But when they're off the clock, they like to kick back. "Depending on the time of year, there's all kinds of iconic parties and events to attend: Halloween, Thanksgiving dinner, the marathon, talent shows, the film festival, IceStock—that's an outdoor concert on New Year's Eve. If you're in McMurdo over New Year's Eve, you have to go to IceStock," LaRue says.

However, some of the games and competitions might seem fatalistic to those with a greater array of entertainment options. For example, when the temperature drops to -50°C (-58°F), scientists and staff strip naked and run around their stations' perimeters, Walkup reports.

Even that's not as crazy as vying for membership in the 300 Club. When the temperature drops to -100°F at the South Pole station, daredevils first warm up in a 200°F sauna, then dash outside (naked, of course) to the spot marking the Geographic South Pole several yards away, then run shrieking back into the sauna—having experienced a 300-degree range in temperature in just a few minutes.

The activities don't just keep boredom at bay; they actually ward off the lethargic, depressive state one gets from living in extreme isolation, which the winter-overs call "toast." As Sven Lidström, a Swedish engineer who helped build the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory, wrote in a 2012 blog post, "the cure for winter-over toastiness is fun and entertainment."

6. THEY START CRAVING SALAD …

McMurdo Station in Antarctica
McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Elaine Hood, National Science Foundation

According to Jason C. Anthony, author of Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, much of the culinary history of the southern continent consists of "isolated, insulated people eating either prepackaged expedition food or butchered sea life." Now, 21st-century scientists chow down on three freshly prepared meals a day at McMurdo and other stations. "Of the five seasons I spent in, or worked out of, McMurdo, I only really remember one where freshies"—local slang for any kind of fresh produce—"were in noticeably short supply," LaRue says.

But scientists and staff still have to cope with the lack of some favorite foods—and those whose fitness for eating is debatable.

"We only really get two deliveries of fresh food a year, one around December and then again around March. All our milk is powdered, and I got used to that very quickly. Some people hate it, but in a cup of tea or a bowl of cereal, I don’t really notice. I wouldn’t drink a glass of it, though," Walkup says.

Walkup devised ways to test if months-old foods were still edible. "We were eating eggs nine months after they had been laid," she says. "Some eggs that look moldy on the outside, and even on the inside, are fine to eat. The trick is to break each egg into a cup to check that it is OK—i.e., doesn’t smell—before adding it to whatever you're making. If the eggs are starting to go, then this is vital—you don’t want to ruin your mixture with a bad egg."

They also get some surprising cravings. "The thing I missed was salad, as that doesn’t travel well," Walkup adds. "I was never a huge fan of salad before I went south, but now I love it."

7. … AND BOOZE.

No planes can fly supplies into the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for up to nine months of the year, because at temperatures below -50°C, the jet fuel freezes. That leaves the small group of winter-overs to their own devices. The company operating the station supplies the scientists and support teams with huge pallets of wine, beer, and spirits that give rise to a makeshift bar at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station dubbed Club 90 South. Phil Broughton, a health physicist who spent one long, dark winter there in the mid-aughts, was its de facto bartender.

He developed a protocol for distributing alcohol: serve enough to help the patrons get through the darkest weeks of winter, and then make sure that those who were completely plastered didn't go home. "The most dire danger in Antarctica is always failure to respect the absolutely lethal environment of Antarctica itself. I was far happier to serve until I could guide [the drinker] over to a couch to pass out than to see him stagger out into the -85°F night," Broughton wrote in a blog post.

Plenty of scientists carry in their favorite spirits, just in case their base runs out halfway through the season. Says LaRue, "Bringing scotch with you is a must."

8. SOMETIMES THEY ACTUALLY FEEL TOO WARM.

Scientists in the field have to wear layers upon layers of insulating clothing, bring more hand and foot warmers than they think they'll need, and stay active to avoid hypothermia. "I distinctly remember one snow machine trip back to town, where the wind was just whipping across our faces, my fingers were numb. It was really cold," LaRue says. "As soon as I parked the snow machine I got off and just ran as fast and as far as I could to warm up."

In the summer season, though, being bundled in Gore-Tex can make them too hot. The extremely dry climate prevents the chilly damp feeling of more temperate regions—and if the sun is shining, its rays bounce off the reflective ice and fry the researchers. "Sometimes you can get really warm and even work in shorts and a t-shirt," Walkup says. "At 79 degrees south it can be -10°C [14°F] in the height of summer, and the sun is really strong, so on a day with no wind it is warm enough to sunbathe—just don’t lay down in the snow."

9. THEY DON'T SEE POLAR BEARS.

Antarctica teems with wildlife: six species of penguins, six species of seal, countless seabirds, and majestic whales are the southern ocean's most charismatic fauna. Scientists won't see any mammals from that other pole, however. Says Walkup, "people always ask me if I have seen polar bears. I haven’t—they only live in the Arctic."

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

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2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

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3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

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4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

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5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

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6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

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7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

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8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

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9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

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10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Meet Ice Cream Scientist Dr. Maya Warren

Maya Warren
Maya Warren

Most people don’t think about the chemistry in their cone when enjoying a scoop of ice cream, but as a professional ice cream scientist, Dr. Maya Warren can’t stop thinking about it. A lot of complex science goes into every pint of ice cream, and it’s her job to share that knowledge with the people who make it—and to use that information to develop some innovative flavors of her own.

Unlike many people’s idea of a typical scientist, Warren isn’t stuck in a lab all day. Her role as senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery takes her to countries around the world. And after winning the 25th season of The Amazing Race in 2014, she’s now back in front of the camera to host Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya on Instagram. In honor of National Ice Cream Month this July, we spoke with Dr. Warren about her sweet job.

How did you get involved in food science?

I fell in love with science at a really young age. I got Gak as a kid, you know the Nickelodeon stuff? And I remember wanting to make my own Gak. I remember getting a little kit and putting together the glue and all the coloring and whatever else I needed to make it. I also had make-your-own gummy candy sets. So I was always into making things myself.

I didn't really connect that to chemistry until later on in life. When I was in high school, I fell in love with chemistry. I decided at that point I should go to college to become a high school chemistry teacher. One day I was over at my best friend's house in college, and she had the TV on in her apartment. I remember watching the Food Network and there was a show on called Unwrapped, and they go in and show you how food is made on a manufacturing, production scale. In that particular episode, they went into a flavor chemistry lab. It was basically a wall full of vials with clear liquid inside them. They were about to flavor soda to make it taste like different parts of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. So you had green bean casserole-flavored soda, you had turkey and gravy-flavored soda, cranberry sauce soda. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, like how disgusting is this? But how cool is this! I could do this. I'm a chemist."

I love the science of food and how intriguing it is, and I had to ask myself, "Maya, what do you love?" And I was like, "I love ice cream! I’m going to become one of the world’s experts in frozen aerated deserts." I found a professor at UW Madison [where I earned my Ph.D. in food science], Dr. Richard Hartel, and he took me under his wing. Six and half years later, I’ve become an expert in ice cream and all its close cousins.

How did you arrive at your current position?

I didn't actually apply for the job. Six years ago, I was running The Amazing Race, the television show on CBS. After I was on it, a lot of publications reached out wanting to interview me. I did a couple of interviews and someone from Cold Stone found my interview. They noticed that I’m a scientist, and they were looking for someone with my background, so they reached out to me. I was actually writing my dissertation, and I was like, "I'm not looking for a job right now. I just want to go home and sleep."

I originally told myself I wasn't going to work for a year because I was so exhausted after graduate school and I needed some time off. But I ended up going to their office in Scottsdale for an interview. At that time, I still wasn't sure if was going to do it or not because I didn't want to move to Arizona. It's just so incredibly hot. I ended up being able to work something out with them where I didn't have to move Arizona. I came on board back in 2016. I started as a consultant at first because I didn't want to move. But then I proved I could make this work from afar.

What does your job at Cold Stone Creamery entail?

I'm the senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery. A lot of what I do is establishing dairies and building ice cream mixes for countries all across the globe. Dairy is a very expensive commodity. Milk fat is quite pricey. Cold Stone has locations all over the world, and they all need ice cream mixes. But sometimes bringing that ice cream from the United States into that country is extremely expensive, because of conflicts, because of taxes, different importation laws. A lot of what I do is helping those countries figure out how they can build their own dairies, or how can they work with local dairies to make ice cream mixes more affordable.

The other part of what I do is create new ice cream flavors for these places. I look at a local ingredient and say, "I see people in this country eating a lot of blank. Why don’t we turn that into ice cream? How would people feel about that?" I try to get these places to realize that ice cream is so much more than a scoop. In the States, we have ice cream bars, ice cream floats, ice cream sandwiches. But many countries don’t see ice cream like that. So getting these places to come on board with different ideas and platforms to grow their business is a big part of my job.

Ice cream scientist Maya Warren.
Maya Warren

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor you made on the job?

I made a product called honey cornbread and blackberry jam ice cream. Ice cream to me is a blank canvas. You can throw all kinds of paint at it—blue and red and yellow and orange and metallic and glitter and whatever else you want—and it becomes this masterpiece. That's how I look at ice cream.

Ice cream starts out with a white base that's full of milk fat and sugar and nonfat dry milk. It’s plain, it’s simple. For this flavor, I thought, "Why don’t I throw cornbread in ice cream mix?" I put in some honey, because that’s a good sweetener, and a little sea salt, because salt elevates taste, especially in sweeter desserts. And why don’t I use blackberry jam? When you’re eating it, you feel the gritty texture of cornbread, which is quite interesting. You get that pop of the berry flavor. There’s a complexity to the flavors, which is what I enjoy about what you can do with ice cream.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

One of the most rewarding things is being able to produce a product and see people eat it. The other part of it is being able to have a hand in helping people in different countries get on their feet. Ice cream isn’t a luxury for many people in America, but there are people in other countries that would look at it that way. Being able to introduce ice cream to these countries is fascinating to me. And being able to provide job opportunities for people, that sincerely touches my heart.

The last part is the fact that when I tell people I’m an ice cream scientist, it doesn’t matter how old the person is, they can’t believe it. I’m like, "I know, could you imagine doing what you love every day?" And that’s what I do. I love ice cream.

What are some misconceptions about being an ice cream scientist?

When I tell people what I do, they automatically think I just put flavors in ice cream. They don’t know that there’s a whole other part of it before you get to adding flavor. They don't think about the balancing of a mix, the chemistry that goes into ice cream, the microbiology part that goes into ice cream, the flavor science that goes into ice cream. There’s so much hardcore science that goes into being an ice cream scientist. Ice cream, believe it or not, is one of the most complex foods known to man (and woman). It is a solid, it’s a gas, and it’s also a liquid all in one. So the solid phase comes in via the ice crystals and partially coalesced fat globules. The gas phase comes in via the air cells. Ice cream usually ranges from 27 to 30 percent overrun, which is the measurement of aeration in ice cream. You also have your liquid phase. There’s a semi-liquid to component to ice cream that we don’t see, but there’s a little bit of liquid in there.

People don’t think about ice crystals and air cells when they think about ice cream. They really don’t think partially coalesced fat globules. But it’s really fun to connect the science of ice cream to the common knowledge people have about this product they eat so much.

If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t an ice cream scientist, I think that I would have been a motivational speaker. When I was a kid, my parents would send me to camp, and I remember having a lot of motivational speakers that would come in and talk to us. I always wanted to do that as a kid. So it’s either between that or a sport medicine doctor, because that was the track I was on in college. So if I didn’t figure out food science, I probably would have gone back to sports medicine. But I’m glad I didn’t go down that path, because I think I have one of the coolest and sweetest jobs—pun intended—that exists on planet Earth.

You’ve been hosting Ice Cream Sundays on Instagram Live since May. What inspired this?

At the beginning of quarantine, I was like, "What am I going to do? I can't travel anywhere. What am I going to do with all this extra time?" I was on Instagram, and I started seeing people at the very beginning of this make all this bread. And I was like, "I need to start talking about ice cream more. Ice cream can’t be left out of this conversation."

I started making ice cream and posting here and there, and people would ask me about it, and I would ask them, "Do you have an ice cream maker?" I put a poll up and 70, 80 percent of people who replied did not have ice cream makers. So I was like, "How am I going to make people happy with ice cream if all I do is show photos and they can’t make it?" Then I decided to make a no-churn ice cream. That’s not how you make it in the industry, but it’s how you make it at home if you don’t have an ice cream machine. I think it was around May 3, I decided I was going to do an Instagram Live. I’m going to call it Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya, and I’ll just see where it goes from there.

I did one, and from the beginning, people were so in love with it. Then I thought, "Whoa, I guess I should continue doing this." I’ve made a calendar. People really attend. People make the ice cream. People watch me on Live. I’ve always wanted to have a television show on ice cream. I figured, if I can’t do a show on ice cream right now on a major network, I might as well start a show on Instagram.

What advice do you give to young people interested in becoming ice cream scientists?

My advice is: If you want to do it, do it. Don’t forget to work hard, but have fun along the way. And if ice cream isn’t necessarily the realm for you, make sure whatever you do makes your heart flutter. My heart flutters when I think about ice cream. I am so intrigued with it. So if you find something that makes your heart flutter, no one can ever take away your desire for it. If it is ice cream, we can get down and dirty with it. I can tell them about the science behind it, the biology, the microbiology that goes into ice cream itself. But I just encourage people to follow their heart and have fun with whatever they do.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

If we’re talking just general flavors, I love a good cookies and cream. I’m an Oreo fan. I also make a double butter candy pecan that is my absolute jam.