Student Stories

Journey to the pole: UChicago astrophysics major travels to Antarctica

Third-year astrophysics major Lindsay Berkhout had known that she wanted to channel her passion for hands-on science into a career for a long time. “I really liked building things in high school,” she said. “I decided the coolest way to build things was to build them for space.”

What she didn’t know was that this passion would bring her an exceptional opportunity. This quarter, Berkhout found out that she was selected for a trip to Antarctica to work on the CosRay experiment at the South Pole. CosRay is similar to a large Geiger counter and monitors neutron counts. This data can be analyzed to measure geomagnetic fields, solar activity, and cosmic rays. Part of a web of neutron monitors around the world, the South Pole CosRay monitors are especially informative because of their distance from human activity, which can affect the accuracy of the sensitive counts.

Berkhout spent last summer working with a Research Education for Undergraduates (REU) program at University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF). In this role, she conducted research for a collaboration known as IceCube, which is a particle detector on the South Pole that detects the subatomic particles known as neutrinos.

At the beginning of this quarter, Berkhout enrolled in a full schedule of classes but soon decided to take a leave of absence to pursue the three-week trip with the CosRay experiment. “It was definitely worth it,” Berkhout said. “It will probably be an experience I’ll never get to do again. I can always take my classes next year.”

After a flight from Chicago to San Francisco, another to New Zealand, and an Air National Guard plane to McMurdo station on the coast of the Antarctic continent, Berkhout faced the polar elements for the first time. 

“Every time I would walk outside my breath would freeze to my hair, so I would have icicles hanging off [of] it!” At a coastal stop, she and her team observed some local wildlife. “We saw some penguins, some whales, lots of seals, and a couple of birds called skua, which are these really ugly, aggressive birds. You’re not allowed to bring food outside because they will dive bomb you.”

“I imagine it's the closest I would get to understanding what it might be like living on another planet,” said Dr. Surujhdeo Seunarine of UWRF, Linsday’s adviser on the trip. Visiting the South Pole for the first time in over twenty years, Seunarine appreciated the improvements in living situations brought by the new South Pole Station. “Last time I had to sleep in the Jamesway hut tents,” he remarked.  

The team took another Air National Guard plane to the South Pole, the site of the CosRay experiment. Upon arrival, Berkhout performed maintenance on the CosRay monitors, which are stored on a platform outside in the blistering cold. Some of the machinery had not been inspected in ten years, so the team had to check heating and replace electronics.

The frigid climate posed unique challenges to the physicists’ work. “When you’re there, everything goes much slower than you expect.” said Berkhout. “It’s at a 10,000 feet altitude with -30° degree temperatures, with wind chills around -50°. Sometimes we had to spend time shoveling snow.”

These challenges made the trip all the more rewarding. Berkhout shows pride in the steps she has taken to reach this point in her education, and she credits the College for helping develop the research skills that made her a good fit for this trip. 

“I got involved in research [at UChicago] very early on, and that helped out a lot,” she said. As advice for students interested in pursuing similar opportunities, Berkhout says that these early opportunities are crucial. “Think about applying for summer opportunities. Find something you’re interested in. REUs are really great for that.”

Berkhout continues her astrophysics pursuits by running weekend workshops for students at the University-owned Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. This summer she will intern at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. When asked if she’ll be returning to the South Pole someday, she gave an enthusiastic “I hope so!”