Meet Elaine Krebs, our 2020 PolarTREC educator

Elaine Krebs
Photo Courtesy of Elaine Krebs

Yes, you read that right.

Back in 2019, Elaine Krebs was selected as the next PolarTREC educator to work with IceCube’s South Pole crew, with deployment set for 2020. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, deployment was delayed to 2022. Now, Elaine will finally embark on her journey to the South Pole, where she will be from the end of December 2022 to the end of January 2023.

PolarTREC is a program that sends educators to either the Arctic or Antarctica to work alongside scientists for three to six weeks. Through PolarTREC, educators gain valuable hands-on research experience and connect with the community in the polar regions. PolarTREC is funded through awards from the National Science Foundation and administered by the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS). 

Elaine, who has a Master’s degree in Marine and Environmental Biology from the University of Southern California (USC), is the Lead Educator at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, CA. Prior to her current role, she worked in Exhibit Development at the museum and taught outdoor education on Catalina Island, CA and Big Bear Mountain, CA. When she’s not at the Science Center, she can be found on the road bringing educational programs to scout troops, community centers, and the general public. 

While pursuing her studies at USC, Elaine developed an interest in science visualization and decided to take animation classes. She then turned her research into an animation titled “The Nitrogen Cycle,” which took first prize at the 2016 USC Science Film Festival. Even now, she uses animation to help the general public visualize science and make science less intimidating. 

Elaine Kreb’s award-winning animation, titled “The Nitrogen Cycle.”

Elaine will soon land on the ice to work with our winterovers and the rest of the South Pole crew during the summer season to help out with various tasks around the station. You can follow along with Elaine’s adventures on Instagram (@elaine.explains) and her blogs in her PolarTREC journal

We sat down with Elaine to learn more about her background, why she went into science outreach and communication, and what she hopes to get out of her experience at the South Pole. The Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

IceCube: Where did you grow up and how did you get to where you are today?

Elaine: I actually grew up outside of Chicago, IL and have family close to Madison, WI in Sun Prairie. I went to USC for undergrad because I thought the weather would be nice, which it still is.

I first wanted to be a doctor, but then wanted to be a marine biologist. While taking classes in my Masters coursework, I had to take a communication course and intern at the museum across the street. So I walked across the street, got a job there, and that’s where I’ve been ever since. 

What’s your scientific background?

I have a Masters Degree in Marine and Environmental Biology with an emphasis on science communication. I went through a program at USC that focused on animation and science visualization, making it easier to tell people about science so they can understand the crazy things we’re doing. 

What inspired you to get into science? Was there an “Aha!” moment?

I had great science teachers and in those classes, I loved just seeing the things we experience every day and how they work. We could use science to explain the “why” for things that we take for granted. I thought I wanted to go into science to be a doctor, but now I think it’s really fun to show people how the world works and that science is not intimidating! 

Why science communication and outreach?

I think there are a lot of misconceptions about science because it isn’t always communicated well. There are a lot of intricacies that can cause confusion. I want to translate that science and use visuals so anybody can understand what’s happening. It’s also important to show that science isn’t a “thing” but a process of discovery where we keep learning new things.

Can you tell me more about the animations?

The first class I took was hand drawn animation, and I realized that I could tell stories with a stick figure. But, I thrived with computer animation because I could tell the computer what to do. It was hard to start, but once I got started, it was pretty fun to take these crazy things and put them out somewhere. It’s cool to collaborate with other artists who have never seen that side of science before. 

What do you do at the museum?

We work a lot with our local community, the city, and visitors from around the world who come to visit the museum. As an informal educator, meaning not in the classroom, I work with schools, community groups, scout troops, afterschool programs, families, and the city of LA to deliver science programs. During the pandemic, we did everything virtually, including recorded videos about our events and “Camp in a Box” activity kits that we sent out in the summer. Working at the museum is crazy fun because it’s always new, always different. I’m always learning new things and thinking of new ways to keep things fun and interesting for everybody. 

Do you have a favorite program?

I really like working with middle schoolers. I think they are the perfect age of being interested while still being able to do stuff. One of my favorite classes was a summer class on photography, which I knew nothing about at the time. I focused the class on the evolution of photography so we did pinhole cameras and developed our own film, which the kids were really into. It ended up being super fun, they loved showing their cameras. That ended up being a fun camp because it was a discovery for me and fun for the kids. 

Have you found an effective way to teach science to kids?

I think the biggest thing is to let them do it. A lot of my activities are set up to let kids run the experiment or give them a goal and have them test or try it out. They’re more engaged because they feel that they did it or made this discovery. Any way that you can connect science to something that they’ve seen or heard makes it more effective. Science is all around us, but you don’t need fancy equipment to make discoveries. 

How did you become a PolarTREC educator?

I heard about this program through a friend of mine who went through the same Masters program and did research at the Arctic. After applying three times, I interviewed with Jim and the team and from there, I knew that IceCube was the project I wanted to be on. This was back in December 2019 and the plan was to deploy in 2020, but that obviously didn’t happen. It got pushed back to this year so this ended up being an opportunity that was a bunch of years in the making. It’s been a long time coming but I am very, very excited!

What are you most excited for?

I am excited to go do some research and be around research scientists, because that also heightens science education when you are connected to the research. There’s real, tangible stuff happening and new discoveries being made. We don’t have all the answers yet so bringing that ongoing research into the program is something I’m excited about. It will be great to be surrounded by people doing critical and fascinating research.

I am also excited about physically being in Antarctica. It sounds like an amazing, magical place. 

What do you think will be the biggest challenge?

I think the biggest challenge is the fact that it’s such an extreme environment. It’s super high elevation at the South Pole so I am nervous about getting altitude sickness and being cold and tired. Also, it’s a lot of flying to get there. I think working at high elevation in cold temperatures will be challenging, but I think my Midwestern upbringing has prepared me for the extreme environment. 

What do you hope to get out of this experience? 

I hope that I become a vessel of information for the general public. Antarctica is such a  remote place, but that’s where cool astrophysics research is being done. I hope to share IceCube and other Antarctic research and show that this cool research is happening and is relevant. I want to use this experience to excite other people about science and inspire some kids along the way. I want to be a resource and cheerleader for Antarctic research.