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Making the world her classroom

Long hours, manual labor and subzero temperatures? A Rochester swimmer seizes opportunity to work in Antarctica

The job description for an undergraduate research assistant on Antarctica’s Taylor Glacier promised manual labor, long hours and no showers – and sounded perfect to Avery Palardy.

For five weeks last fall, Rochester (New York) junior Avery Palardy, a member of the swim team, went to sleep every night in a tent on a glacier.

Palardy had grown up in a small town in Rhode Island with her parents and two older siblings. She had never done much traveling or camping.  

Yet she always imagined she’d be comfy on nights like those spent huddled in a sleeping bag on that Antarctic glacier, tucked away from the subzero temperatures and incessant sunlight while her teammates back home swam in warm pools and slept in heated rooms.

Such an adventure was a new experience, yet one Palardy always anticipated. 

In the summer before ninth grade, a quiet and shy Palardy participated in a People to People student ambassador program where she spent three weeks with more than 40 strangers traveling the coast of Australia. 

“It was a big life-changing moment,” Palardy said. “Being forced to be with people I don’t know, I realized I can connect to people. … It opened me up as a person. Opened my eyes to what was out there in the world.”

Traveling and the outdoors felt natural even if it was new. She felt compelled to experience more of it.  

So as Palardy began looking at universities years later, the trip to Australia and her yearning to travel and see the world still sat in the back of her mind. She not only wanted a good academic environment with the opportunity to swim, but also a school with robust opportunities to study abroad.  

“Rochester was the first school I visited, and I loved it,” Palardy said. “The school is gorgeous … how I always pictured college. The academic center was outstanding. There were lot of options in the science field and a good swim team.”

Rochester also has a great study abroad program, which sealed the deal. Palardy enrolled in the fall of 2011 as an environmental science major and a student-athlete on the swim team. 

During her sophomore year, Palardy opened an email from a professor seeking an undergraduate research assistant. The job included manual labor, no showers, sleeping in tents and long working hours on a glacier in Antarctica.

“The average person would read that and say, ‘Wow, that does not sound like fun,’” Palardy said. “But I read it and I was like, ‘Wow, that is exactly what I want to do.’” 

Palardy was worried that her schedule wouldn’t allow her to travel to Antarctica or that her parents wouldn’t share her enthusiasm. She already planned to study abroad in South Africa this spring. The research trip would only add to her plate.

Her parents, though, were extremely supportive, so Palardy applied. She got an interview, and one week later learned that she would be on her way to Antarctica.

The group was stationed at the Taylor Glacier, a 34-mile-long glacier located near McMurdo Station, a U.S.-operated research center that is one of Antarctica’s main travel hubs. Getting there required a flight to New Zealand to gather their equipment, another flight on a C-17 to McMurdo Station, and a 45-minute helicopter ride to Taylor Glacier.

While camped in Antarctica, Palardy spent 12 to 14 hours a day drilling ice cores to study 100,000-year-old greenhouse gases.

Palardy was taken aback as she stepped out of the helicopter and onto Taylor Glacier. Pristine water and majestic mountains surrounded her. The light reflected off the white snow, creating an illusion that their campsite glowed.

Once on site, the team’s work included drilling ice cores to analyze their gas composition and atmospheric contents to track greenhouse gases from the past 100,000 years. They spent 12 to 14 hours per day drilling while fighting relentless winds and frigid temperatures that ranged from zero to minus 10 degrees. 

“The physical demands were tough, but the perseverance I acquired though swimming definitely helped me get through the long  and tough days,” Palardy said. 

The living arrangements were not much easier. Team members slept in tents without heat and pulled sleeping bags over their heads to escape the 24 hours of sunlight. They had little contact with the outside world.

Palardy was in her element.

“I never had a moment where I was like, ‘What did I do?’” Palardy said. “I loved every moment of it. I was the happiest person in the world for those weeks. It was the best experience of my life.”