On the counter sits a collection of wrenches, some small and others large enough that you need two hands to use them. Next to those, thin colored wires are twisted and curved in a seemingly random fashion. Long winding cables are strung out across the floor, and every meter a small electronic device protrudes from the smooth sheath.
This is the glaciology lab. There are no bubbling beakers, or round-bottomed flasks, or venting chemical hoods here. Our common perception of a laboratory does not hold up in the glaciology lab. Instead, this space is where my advisor and his students build the intricate instruments that we use in the field. We build temperature sensors the size of a stick of gum, data loggers that record measurements throughout long winters on the Greenland Ice Sheet, and 3D printed objects to refine our products.
Working in this lab and learning to build devices that we use in the field has been both challenging and intriguing. Since my advisor is the real expert in electronics, my job is largely finicky and repetitive tasks–but tasks not without rewards. For instance, I may spend the entire day putting electrical tape over exposed wires on the long cables that we use to measure temperature in the ice sheet. Sure, the task becomes monotonous, but I know I’m working on a really exciting project and the small jobs I do end up helping us better understand the thermal structure of areas within the Greenland Ice Sheet.
Another of my duties is measuring out these long, winding cables that we eventually lower into a borehole (a drilled hole) in the ice sheet. This usually involves bringing a coil of cable into the hallway outside of the lab, and then stringing it out until it reaches 100 meters. As the hallway is only about 40 meters, there’s a bit of zig-zagging involved. I then have to mark it every one meter with tape and a Sharpie. Again, very monotonous. But I remind myself that the end of this very long cable will be 100 meters (that’s almost 330 feet!) below the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and to me, that’s very cool.
Before beginning my master’s degree, the only experience I had with building electronics was high school physics. Essentially I had a background in following my teacher’s directions for making a mousetrap-powered toy car. Believe me, nothing special. While I may not be able to completely design and build science-worthy instruments by myself yet, I have already learned so much about electronics and applied physics. I’ve also learned that being a scientist isn’t just being an expert in your field, but rather building a skill set in a variety of disciplines to help you succeed in your particular field. Much of my experience as a glaciologist has actually been learning how to be a physicist who just really likes working in cold places.