Ups and downs: Exploring the Antarctic and working with NASA

31 May 2023

Image: Ariel Waldman

Ariel Waldman’s job takes her to the depths of the Antarctic ice but it can also turn to the skies above in her role as a NASA adviser. She spoke to Jenny Darmody about straddling these two passions.

When we think about some of the coolest jobs in STEM, there are plenty of options to choose from, whether it’s a glaciologist studying the planet’s ice, a marine scientist exploring deep-sea habitats or someone working at NASA with their eyes on the stars.

But the beauty of working in STEM is that it can be so multidisciplinary that some find a perfect sweet spot in which they can blend their interests and build a custom science career for themselves. What’s more, the need for more diversity in the STEM community means that even citizen scientists with non-traditional backgrounds can do this.

Ariel Waldman is an Antarctic explorer, filmmaker and NASA adviser who collaborates with research teams. An art school graduate who pivoted to science, Waldman was recognised by the Obama White House as a Champion of Change in Citizen Science. She also spoke at Inspirefest in 2015.

“I went to art school, got my degree and wasn’t really thinking about anything related to science whatsoever. But several years ago, I watched a documentary about NASA during the early days and how they were trying to send humans into space,” she said.

“When they were interviewing all the old guys from mission control in the 1960s, they were talking about how they didn’t know anything about space exploration and were having to figure it out. And I became so inspired by that documentary that I decided to reach out to someone at NASA and was just like, ‘Hey, I think what you do is really cool’, and I ended up getting a job at NASA from that email exchange.”

She said the reason she had never thought about science before was because she didn’t think someone with a background like hers could work at NASA; she saw it as a completely different subject area.

However, having that positive experience and subsequently getting a job at NASA despite her lack of science experience empowered her to contribute to the industry. “I shouldn’t be the one putting barriers on myself,” she said.

From the edge of the universe…

Waldman’s first job at NASA was working with a programme called CoLab, an agency-wide project that was designed to connect individual members of the public with NASA’s work.

“They specifically wanted someone who didn’t have experience with NASA to help bridge that gap between those two different communities. And that really set me on a path to realising the power of multidisciplinary collaboration specifically with NASA,” said Waldman.

“I then later was brought into a National Academy of Sciences Committee on the future of human spaceflight, to really look at what the future of human spaceflight could be, with consideration for what it means for people who don’t necessarily work in human spaceflight.”

She also became an adviser to the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts programme, which specifically nurtures “more ‘out there’ ideas” that could transform future space missions through major breakthroughs.

“They fund everything from robotic exploration to human spaceflight to astrophysics – concepts that could really change the game for space exploration, that might not be possible today. So, whether that’s building houses out of mushrooms on Mars or putting sparkly confetti into space and turning it into a telescope, they fund really ‘out there’ stuff,” said Waldman.

“Through that programme, a lot of my focus was on getting researchers from completely different disciplines outside of space exploration to contribute their research towards space. So, whether that was using AI or synthetic biology or things of that nature, there’s so many amazing researchers out there that don’t think about space but could really help space exploration in the future.”

…to the depths of the Antarctic

While her contributions to NASA can be seen as astronomical – pun intended – the title Waldman generally goes by is Antarctic explorer.

Her work is focused on filming life under the ice in different parts of Antarctica. “A lot of the life there is considered extremophiles that can survive these sorts of extreme environments and they’re microscopic. So, a lot of my motivation and focus is really about showcasing the life in Antarctica that most people don’t get to see, since it is microscopic, and showing them that Antarctica is actually full of life.”

When I first reached out to her for an interview in December 2022, she had just begun a two-month expedition, embedded on the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research Team.

“Embedded in the soils team, I was both working with the researchers to study the soils and the organisms that live in them, as well as filming a nature docuseries supported by National Geographic to showcase this really unique region of Antarctica.”

‘It’s just delightful to think of glaciers as being things that are full of life and not just ice’

Working in such extreme conditions is not without its challenges. Waldman said even though they go at the height of the Antarctic summer, the team is still faced with unpredictable weather.

“That means our helicopters can shut down at any point, our planes can shut down at any point, and we have to really have a flexible field plan to accommodate weather sort of trapping us in different locations if needed.”

However, the rewards that come with exploring such an environment are great for someone as curious as Waldman.

“For me, one of the coolest things are organisms that can live inside of glaciers. And so, you get tardigrades and rotifers and these microscopic animals that are actually living inside of these little holes inside of glaciers and the holes freeze over on the top and so they’re completely embedded in ice,” she said.

“You have whole, tiny ecosystems of these organisms and they’re doing great in there and they survive and they have their whole little pocket universe inside of a glacier … It’s just delightful to think of glaciers as being things that are full of life and not just ice.”

Science communication and outreach

Between her multidisciplinary work and the fact that she comes from a non-traditional STEM background, you could argue that Waldman is a great science communicator, walking that line between the science community and the outside world.

“I think it’s an Achilles heel for science in general because I find that most science institutions aren’t imaginative enough to think about how they could possibly interact with people from different disciplines,” she said.

“There’s been some improvement over the last 10 to 20 years, but there’s still a lot that needs to be done and I think it happens both at an institutional level, but also an individual level.”

With this in mind, another string to her bow is Science Hack Day, a highly collaborative, multidisciplinary and inclusive science-prototyping event that spans 30 countries.

“A lot of scientists and researchers who do highly technical types of research feel that they couldn’t possibly collaborate with an artist or couldn’t possibly collaborate with a tech web developer or something because they would have to educate them about so many years of stuff they know before they could possibly work together.”

She said that this comes from a mindset that needs to be broken down in order for proper collaboration to happen.

“Creating more situations in science institutions with science groups to actually interact with people from different disciplines, I think really can change hearts and minds and demonstrate how collaborations can work despite people coming from very different sets of education.”

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic