Physicist - Andrew Klekociuk

At age 13 or so, what did you want to do when you grew up?

I wanted to be a scientist. I wasn't quite sure which type - an industrial chemist, a geologist or an astronomer. At about this time, my father helped me build a telescope, and I became very interested in astronomy. I quickly found that there were a lot of mysteries to explore - the more I read and observed, the more I found that I didn't know. One thing that impressed me about astronomy was that there were worthwhile scientific projects that you could do from your backyard with just a pair of binoculars or a telescope. I became involved in variable star observing and sunspot counting at age 13, and sent my data off to a respected amateur group called the American Association of Variable Star Observers for analysis.

What town or city are you from?

Glenorchy, Tasmania.

What were your educational/technical qualifications when you first worked in Antarctica?

Bachelor of Science with Honours (University of Tasmania), majoring in physics. When I joined the Antarctic Division I was completing the write-up of my PhD thesis (also undertaken at the University of Tasmania). My thesis topic was a study of the an astronomical object known as the Vela pulsar. This object weighs about 40% more than the sun, is about 10 km in diameter, spins 11 times a second - and is about 15,000 light years away. I measured rotation period of the pulsar from the study of its radio emissions, and then was able to present some new information about its behaviour.

What was your work experience before undertaking your position in Antarctica?

I had essentially no work experience, as I had been in full-time study since kindergarten! I had a few part-time jobs at uni - house painting, marking and lab demonstrating. However, during university studies, particularly while undertaking my PhD, I developed skills in certain areas that were particularly useful when I joined the Antarctic Division - these include scientific analysis techniques, computer skills, and the design, construction and repair of electronic circuits.

Why did you want to go to Antarctica?

When I was studying astronomy as a hobby during my high school and matriculation years, I became interested in the aurora australis (the southern lights). This was another phenomenon I could observe from my backyard. In finding out more about aurora, I found out what research was being done by the Antarctic Division, and became interested in doing science in Antarctica. A good thing was that I didn’t need have to leave Tasmania to become involved. I was also interested in meteorology, geology, oceanography, the history of exploration, bushwalking and photography - Antarctica seemed a natural place for me to pursue interests in these areas. At the end of my PhD I was undecided whether to apply for a job with the Antarctic Division or find a postdoctoral position overseas - a job in Antarctica was my first preference, and I was lucky enough to get this opportunity straight up.

What is your Antarctic experience?

  • A winter at Macquarie Island (17 months, from late 1987 to early 1989).
  • A summer at Mawson (six months, 1990-91).
  • A summer at Macquarie Island (four months, 1991-92).
  • Summers at Davis, (2000-01, 2001-02, 2004-05).

What did you do in Antarctica?

During my early Antarctic trips I set up equipment to study the aurora, and analysed my observations. During my winter at Macquarie Island, I also operated about 11 experiments that investigated various phenomena in the earth’s upper atmosphere. These experiments were run for the Antarctic Division, CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research, and various Government agencies and several universities.

My trips since 2000 have been to work on the Lidar experiment, which uses a laser to measure temperatures in the upper atmosphere.

What skills did you need to do that work?

The ability to design and conduct scientific research projects (including the publication of scientific papers) without direct supervision. A knowledge of atmospheric physics. The ability to operate complex scientific equipment. The ability to write computer programs to analyse data and operate equipment.

What did you like most about living and working in Antarctica?

The spectacular environment (including the scenery and wildlife), the comradeship of my fellow expeditioners, the challenge of my work.

What was the scariest thing that happened to you?

At Mawson, I had quite a few trips out into the field. I got to do quite a few very enjoyable things — exploring crevasses, skiing, and running huskies. I also made several good mates. At the end of my time, my friends and I organised a 'barbecue trip' - we took one of the vehicles (a Hagglund) out to a couple of the field huts for a day trip. We organised some nice food (we even took a portable generator and a microwave oven!), visited some great spots and took lots of photographs. On the way back, I was asked to drive the last leg back to the station. It was late in the day, and the atmosphere was quite cold (minus 10 degrees or so). This meant that the surface was very icy. The last couple of kilometres of the trip was down an ice slope. The wind during the previous couple of weeks had blown the snow off the surface, so the slope was basically polished ice, except for one small snow bank. At the top of the slope I gingerly eased the vehicle onto the snow bank, which snaked its way partially down the hill. However, due to the icy conditions, the vehicle slowly slid sideways off the snow and onto the ice. After a little way, we were on polished ice, and there was no way to stop and turn around. The vehicle steadily picked up speed, despite the brakes being firmly on. The only option was to point down the hill, steer carefully and hope we didn't flip over. Anyhow, we made it!

What was the greatest challenge for you?

Being able to get all of my work done in a timely manner! As a scientist, there's a lot of work to do, and you want to make the most of the opportunity to gather data. But you also want to get out into the field and enjoy the environment. You have to make the most of every minute.

What did you miss most about Australia?

Family and friends. I was married two weeks before going on my trip in 1991. It was very difficult being away from my wife and daughter.

What was the most striking thing you noticed when you returned from Antarctica?

How warm and calm it was! Going to the supermarket and having to pay for things.

Do you want to go again?

Yes, I hope to keep travelling to Antarctica to work on my research.

What do you think should happen to Antarctica in the future?

I see Antarctica as a place where the international community can expand and strengthen its ability to work together for peaceful purposes. I hope that Antarctica is not exploited for its resources, but rather studied for the information that will help us better appreciate our planet and how fragile it is. I think that there is a place for tourism in Antarctica - but the numbers of tourists and their effects on the environment must be controlled and monitored by the international community.

This page was last modified on January 23, 2014.