Engineer - Mark Underwood
At age 13 or so, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be an electrical engineer, though I did not know what they really did. I wanted to be one, because I thought that that was what my father did (he wasn't actually, but he had a strong interest in electronics, which has rubbed off on me).
What town or city are you from?
I was from Sydney, but now live in South Hobart.
What were your educational/technical qualifications when you first worked in Antarctica?
I had completed my degree in electrical engineering at the University of Technology, Sydney, two years before starting at the Antarctic Division.
What was your work experience before undertaking your position in Antarctica?
I was designing computer-based products for a company in Sydney. We made electronic machines that helped people deliver food, go shopping, keep track of data etc.
Why did you want to go to Antarctica?
I always wanted to go to the Antarctic. I remember writing to the Antarctic Division when I was in primary school, asking if I could join them as a cabin boy! The idea of living in a small community, and being independent seemed to be exciting - and it was!
What is your Antarctic experience?
Macca [Macquarie Island] 1989, Davis 1992 and three cruises south for marine science on our research vessel Aurora Australis.
What did you do in Antarctica?
I was an electronics engineer. I kept the scientific equipment running, and helped people with their computer problems.
What skills did you need to do that work?
I needed the skills that I was taught at university. I also needed to be able to fix problems. Sometimes the problems were hard to find. Sometimes it was difficult to fix the problems because the spare parts were only available in Australia, and we wouldn't be able to get them till next year. Sometimes the problems were hard to solve because they were in instruments that lived outside in the cold.
What did you like most about living and working in Antarctica?
Antarctica is a beautiful place, and I liked getting out doors and experiencing it. I also liked the idea that I was living in a small, self-contained village surrounded by wilderness.
What was the scariest thing that happened to you?
Travelling across the Antarctic plateau in a vehicle at night, in midwinter, during a blizzard, while trying to follow a line of cane markers to avoid crevasse fields. We had been trying over several days to get back to our base, and had not had time to sleep. It was too cold to turn our vehicles off, so we kept trying until there was a lull in the blizzard, and we could see our way down. The traverse needed to occur in the midwinter period to capture a particular event in the ionosphere.
What was the greatest challenge for you?
After the first traverse (my 'scariest' thing), we had to head back out to retrieve an abandoned vehicle, and one of our field stations. This was a challenge, because we had been pushed trying to get back on the first attempt, so to head out again seemed to be tempting fate. The weather was again bad, however we managed to retrieve all of the equipment, and collect two of our party who were marooned further down the coast.
What did you miss most about Australia?
At Macquarie Island, I missed my girlfriend the most, followed by rock melon. At Davis, I was lucky enough to be accompanied during the year by my girlfriend (she is a scientist). Hence at Davis I just missed the rock melons.
What was the most striking thing you noticed when you returned?
Trees, rain, and walking down the street and not knowing everyone. When you live at a base in Antarctica, you say g'day to everyone you meet when walking around, because you know them all.
Do you want to go again?
Yes, though life gets busier, and it gets harder to find the time to head south for a year or more! We have recently had a baby boy, and I don't want to head south right now, and miss him growing up. Maybe later on.
What do you think should happen to Antarctica in the future?
Current management practices should be maintained. No mining, but a well managed tourism industry. Tourism is a good way to involve lots of people, and ensure that there are lots of supporters to keep the Antarctic safe from inappropriate utilisation.