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IC on Ice: Andrea Wille’s Year in Antarctica

Andrea Wille joined the Competence Center Ion Chromatography (IC) at Metrohm International Headquarters in the fall of 2000. At the time, she was already an expert in IC, having used the technique in labs, on boats, and in the eternal ice of Antarctica.

The idea of spending a year in Antarctica fascinates me, but I have to admit that I also find it a little unsettling: not being able to simply abort the mission once I’ve had enough of snow and ice, I’d probably feel trapped. When I ask Andrea whether she was at all worried about how she’d hold up in the harsh environment of the icy continent, it turns out that she shared none of my concern: «I was young and didn’t really worry about anything. Also, there are no polar bears, and penguins aren’t that voracious», she jokes.

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How it All Began

Around the time Andrea finished her studies, she and her friends stumbled upon a newspaper ad from the Alfred Wegener Institute. The German institute, which focuses on polar and marine research, was looking for «overwinterers», a crew that would spend a year at the institute’s research station in Antarctica. Andrea and her friends immediately liked the idea and applied: «We imagined going down there together, playing cards and all that.» But they had no luck.

Instead, Andrea took up a doctorate, during which she analyzed water and sediment of a Baltic Sea estuary, taking samples and measuring by IC on a boat. When she finished her doctorate, she applied to go to Antarctica again. This time, she got the job.

How to Prepare for a Year in Antarctica

As you can probably imagine, going to Antarctica for a year calls for some preparation. On the one hand, this means packing personal belongings, not only clothing but also things to keep you busy for a year: «I packed my stereo with CDs and tapes, and I also brought tons of books and wool and knitting needles—but I didn’t even get around to much reading or knitting in the end.» On the other hand, the overwinterers themselves have to be prepared as they have to be completely self-reliant for the biggest part of a year. They undergo health checks and trainings such as fire drills.

After three months of preparation, Andrea and the rest of the crew traveled to Cape Town where they embarked for Antarctica on the research vessel Polarstern. Andrea recalls that the one and a half weeks at sea were not easy on the stomach: «Not even the toughest stomach is prepared for that. But I was rather lucky.» She was still able to enjoy the impressive views, like albatrosses following the boat and icebergs floating in the surrounding sea.

RV Polarstern

Iceberg

Daily Life in the Eternal Ice

Andrea’s work in Antarctica took place at the atmospheric chemistry observatory, where she conducted analyses mainly concerned with air pollution. Every day, she walked one and a half kilometers from the station to the observatory. «I appreciated these walks, because they meant that I got out of the station whatever the weather», says Andrea. You should know that the weather conditions can get pretty rough in Antarctica. To get an idea what a walk to the observatory looks like on a stormy day, you can watch this video made by a later generation of overwinterers.

The crew at the station didn’t only consist of scientists, of course. Overwinterers are always accompanied by a doctor, a cook, and technical staff, including electrical and mechanical engineers as well as a radio operator. A lot of time is spent together at the station, playing board games and table tennis, for example. Andrea and three of her crew mates also started playing «ice volleyball» in the station’s underground vehicle hall, which was carved into the ice shelf.

Ice volleyball

But life at the station wasn’t always harmonic: «The crew members aren’t selected for compatibility, so obviously there are conflicts», Andrea remembers. But those crew members who did get along were bound together by the experience. Andrea is still in touch with three of her crew mates—one of them is her husband Stefan who also works at Metrohm International Headquarters today.

In Touch with Nature

Having always been close to nature, the untouched landscape in Antarctica had many charms for Andrea: from the breathtaking panoramic view of the sky, which is not covered by buildings, trees, or mountains, to snowmobile excursions to the nearest emperor penguin colony. The pictures that Andrea gave me for this blog post are just a small selection of the many that she took and developed in the Antarctic station’s photo lab: «4000 slides», she says, «are still waiting to be digitized.»

Seals

Life after Antarctica

Soon after her return from Antarctica, Andrea joined Metrohm as an application chemist at the Competence Center Ion Chromatography, of which she is the head today. A few years later, her husband Stefan also moved to Herisau. Andrea and Stefan haven’t lost their love of adventure, but the long-distance trips and extended bike tours through multiple countries that they used to do have been on hold since their daughter was born seven years ago. Andrea is looking forward to be taking them up again soon: «Our daughter is at an age now that allows us to start traveling more.»

After more than 17 years at Metrohm, Andrea still particularly enjoys the international contact that is part of her job: «We deal with so many different cultures all around the globe, and connected to them are very different sales strategies. Our colleagues all over the world are very good at what they do and they know their markets well. An important aspect of my job to listen to them and understand how we, at Headquarters, can support them with the expertise and the resources that we have here in Herisau.»

Penguin colony in Antarctica

RV Polarstern

All photos are courtesy of Andrea Wille unless marked otherwise.

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7 Comments

  • Alyson Lanciki

    Andrea, this is really great. Thank you for sharing your experiences and photos as a woman wintering over and performing one of the harshest jobs imaginable. You are a great role model for young women!

    January 12, 2018 - 11:07 am Reply
    • Stephanie Kappes

      I agree! I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to put this inspiring story into words!

      January 12, 2018 - 11:13 am Reply
  • Muna Sidarus

    Andrea, you’re a brave woman! Like Stephanie I would be too worried…
    Really great story and amazing pictures.

    Stephanie, his is a such an interesting project and you have the right eye and sensibility for the job 🙂

    January 12, 2018 - 12:33 pm Reply
    • Stephanie Kappes

      Thanks, Muna!

      January 12, 2018 - 12:49 pm Reply
  • C.S.Ramachandran

    Very insightful article. I have studied in school that Antarctica is the coldest and windiest continent with an isolated and hostile environment but this article shows the southernmost continent in a better light.
    Hard to miss are the nice pictures that tell a thousand words !

    Keep up the good work, Stephanie.

    January 12, 2018 - 7:29 pm Reply
    • Stephanie Kappes

      Thank you, Chandu!

      January 13, 2018 - 3:48 pm Reply
  • Paula Caldevilla

    Super-cool! Amazing story and pictures 😀

    January 31, 2018 - 2:38 pm Reply

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