PolarTREC teacher joins neutrino hunters at the South Pole

PolarTREC research experiences connect teachers and scientists in a life-changing experience that nurtures transformative science learning in the classroom.

Lesley Anderson, a fifth year 11th grade biology and environmental science teacher in Chula Vista, CA, is preparing for the trip of her life. In a few weeks, she will start a long journey to Antarctica to join an international team of astrophysicists. They hunt for neutrinos from the remote and extreme corners of the universe with a new type of telescope under the ice at the South Pole.

“I have always been interested in polar regions and after years of excitement about the incredible science conducted in these remote locations, I can’t believe that the dream of participating in this science is becoming a reality,” says Anderson.

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Lesley Anderson has visited Arctic glaciers in preparation for Antarctica. Photo by K. Lykens, Iceland

Neutrinos, tiny and neutral subatomic particles, travel unimpeded through matter, and for that reason they are also known as ghost particles. The sun, a nuclear reactor, and even the natural radioactivity in your body emit neutrinos. But, at the South Pole, physicists are looking for the highest energy neutrinos, those produced near black holes or by colossal exploding stars.

Lesley will spend a few weeks in a small yet cozy room in the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. This National Science Foundation facility sits on top of three kilometers of ice, within sight of the actual South Pole. During the austral summer, it hosts dozens of researchers from many disciplines, all of them benefiting from the unique environment that Antarctica offers for exploration.

The clear, dark ice of Antarctica holds arrays of light and radio detectors that search for cosmic neutrinos 24/7, 365 days per year. The IceCube Neutrino Observatory, buried one mile deep, was the first telescope to observe extragalactic neutrinos. Nearby, but only a few hundred meters below the ice, the Askaryan Radio Array (ARA) is looking for neutrinos at even higher energies.

Lesley is thrilled to join this international team of neutrino hunters, headquartered at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She will be one of the crew, assisting with research and maintenance activities at the Pole. She is looking forward to working hand in hand with this hardworking interdisciplinary team and learning how collaborative teams of people with sharp skills push our understanding of the universe.

“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work alongside scientists and bring their research into my classroom,” Anderson adds. “I think it is so important for teachers to experience real research collaborations so that we can better explain the science to our students.”

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Lesley tries on her ECW (extreme cold weather) gear for her students in 106 degree weather” Photo by C. Stevenson, High Tech High

Her journey to the bottom of the world will begin in November from California. She is scheduled to get to the South Pole six calendar days later, passing through Auckland and Christchurch in New Zealand, then on to the Antarctic coast, and finally to the South Pole. Prior to heading to Antarctica, she will spend a day in Christchurch to pick up cold weather gear and receive training. Then she will fly on an LC-130 Hercules to McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica. If all goes as planned, the following day she will fly over the Transantarctic Mountains and reach the South Pole, in the middle of the largest and driest desert on the planet.

“We are very excited to have Lesley on the team,” says Jim Madsen, IceCube Associate Director responsible for education and outreach. “She will help us bring this incredible science to the public and to classrooms.”

Lesley Anderson is one of eleven teachers in the 2017-2018 cohort to participate in a polar expedition through the PolarTREC program, which offers science educators the opportunity to bring polar science to their classrooms by joining research teams in the Arctic or Antarctic. PolarTREC teachers also participate in outreach events before, during, and after their expeditions to share their experiences with other educators, students, researchers, and other public communities. PolarConnect events allow for real-time communication with PolarTREC teachers and their research team in the field. The PolarTREC website also hosts blog posts about research and life in polar regions, with plenty of pictures from expeditions.

Lesley’s love for science is not new. She conducted research on tropical freshwater fish as an undergraduate biology major at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. In 2011, she tagged and tracked breaching great white sharks off the coast of South Africa. She has also worked as a data analyst for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and for NOAA at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in the Marine Mammal and Turtle Division. And now, IceCube, ARA, and the PolarTREC program are the icing on the cake.

In Chula Vista, her students are currently partnering with Rising Tide Conservation to turn their classroom into a working aquarium laboratory. “I am so excited to continue connecting my students with the scientific community and offer opportunities for them to engage with real scientists in polar research,” Anderson comments.

To follow Lesley’s expedition on social media, please follow the links below:

Instagram: @adventuresofmslesley

Facebook: facebook.com/LesleySouthPole

PolarTREC website: bit.ly/LesleySouthPole

PolarTREC is managed by the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. (ARCUS) and funded by the National Science Foundation and additional partnerships. The IceCube Neutrino Observatory has hosted a PolarTREC teacher six times, and this is the second teacher also working for the Askaryan Radio Array. For both experiments, the PolarTREC program brings valuable connections to teachers committed to bringing research to the classroom.

For more information about the program, see the PolarTREC website at: www.polartrec.com.

The Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS) is based in Fairbanks, Alaska, and was formed in 1988 to communicate, educate, coordinate, and collaborate to advance Arctic understanding. ARCUS membership is open to academic, research, government, Indigenous, and corporate organizations, as well as individuals who want to advance Arctic research. Further information is available at: www.arcus.org.