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Notable UW Engineering Graduate Set for Antarctica Research Trip

October 23, 2017
photo of a man
Rob Streeter, a 2013 graduate from the UW Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, will support scientific research as one of two engineers at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. (Rob Streeter Photo)

While attending college in Laramie, Rob Streeter grew accustomed to dealing with winter days on the high plains.

As it turns out, he’ll need some of the cold-weather gear that got him through the winters at the University of Wyoming.

Streeter, a 2013 UW Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering graduate from Encampment, will embark on a journey to the ends of the Earth to support scientific research. He’ll set up camp at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a United States scientific research facility in the southernmost place on the Earth. The station, at 9,301 feet in elevation, is located on the high polar plateau of Antarctica. The U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) is managed by the National Science Foundation.

Established 60 years ago, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was built as part of an international effort to study the geophysics of the polar regions of Earth. It typically has 40-50 personnel at the station from February through October, and up to 150 during the austral summer, November through mid-February. Streeter accepted the opportunity because his mother had been offered an opportunity to work for the USAP, but turned it down to raise her family.

“I’ll be one of two engineers at the Pole tasked with keeping the experiments running throughout the year, especially winter. We’re called ‘Beakers,’” he says.

In addition to providing engineering support to the research projects, he will serve as a firefighter. He’ll also learn how to drive a snow-cat ambulance and, along with the other members of the team, he’ll receive training as a weather observer.

“We’re entirely self-sufficient in the winter, with no physical contact with the outside world for about eight months,” he says. “I’m also quickly learning that my job is best described as ‘the techie guy who fixes things.’”

The challenges will be immense. Mail takes four to six weeks to arrive, and the last flight for the eight-month winter season is in early February. The South Pole gets about eight hours of internet access each day. He’ll move to a location that runs on New Zealand time and is, thus, 18 hours ahead of Mountain Time. There are no cellphones and just one landline, reserved for very special occasions. No Skype or video conferencing is available. The decision to make the trip was not one he took lightly.

“Well, I passed the psych test,” he says with a laugh. “I guess growing up in rural Wyoming, being a part of search and rescue, and the fire department, and enjoying the outdoors in winter all added up to preparation. I’ve also stored pictures of friends and filled a hard drive with familiar music to take with me to the Pole. I’m counting on all of the folks down there all being in the same boat and bonding in our own ways.

“It’s really a childhood dream come true. It illustrates that anyone can really pursue anything. Just because I graduated high school in a class of only 22, doesn’t mean that I can’t be one of fewer than 50 people to spend this upcoming winter season at the South Pole. I hope to learn from this opportunity. The station will be a collection of highly educated, highly intelligent, multifaceted and dynamic people. Each one will have skills and knowledge far beyond my own, and I’m really excited to learn whatever I can.”

snowy view with building
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is a United States scientific research facility located in the southernmost place on the Earth. It was built 60 years ago as part of an international effort to study the geophysics of the polar regions of Earth. (United States Antarctic Program Photo)

Streeter’s plan is to leave Encampment for training in Denver in mid-October. Later this month, he’ll fly from Denver to Los Angeles to Christchurch, New Zealand. He’ll spend time in Christchurch to be issued Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear and receive more training. He then will take a U.S. Air Force C-17 bound for McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica and receive more instruction.

Another flight aboard an LC-130 “Hercules,” equipped with skis, will cover the last 850 miles to the Amundsen-Scott Station, which will be the destination for the next 12 1/2 months.

Streeter isn’t daunted by the length of the journey or duration of the assignment. He spent three years applying for the position and now will get to see a place only a handful of people on the planet have experienced.

“I think the opportunity absolutely can serve as an inspiration to UW students,” Streeter says. “I hope people realize that tenacity and hard work can open doors to worlds of new opportunities.”

Antarctica Facts

-- Visit www.usap.gov for more information, including web cameras and a photo library.

-- The Antarctic continent is more than 1.5 times the size of the United States. Dozens of nations have research facilities there, of which the United States maintains the largest presence.

-- No one owns Antarctica.

-- The Antarctic Treaty, adhered to by 53 nations, maintains that the continent will be reserved for research.

-- The USAP maintains three year-round research stations: McMurdo Station is the largest research station on the continent; Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is where Streeter will be working; and Palmer Station is the smallest of the three U.S. stations.

-- There are two main seasons in Antarctica: the austral summer and winter. The exact months defining each season depends on where you are located. The South Pole is much more remote and colder than Palmer Station, which is accessible year-round via ship as it is located on an island.

-- The warmest temperature ever recorded at the South Pole was 9.9 degrees Fahrenheit Dec. 25, 2011.

-- Science at the South Pole focuses on astrophysics, although other science is conducted there.


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