By Rachel Holt
If you ask most people where their happy place is, you’d probably get answers like a childhood home, a sunny vacation spot or even a beloved coffee shop.
For David Harwood, micropaleontologist and professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, his happy place is the hostile and bitterly cold, yet serene plains of Antarctica.
Harwood has been to Antarctica 18 times for research projects such as ANDRILL, an Antarctic drilling project that analyzes sediments in ice and rock cores to gather information about past periods of global warming and cooling. His work as micro paleontologist allows him to study microalgae called diatoms that help determine past Antarctic climates.
“There are not a lot of people that do what I do, so I’ve been in most of drilling projects that have ever happened,” Harwood said.
Harwood always knew he wanted to pursue a career in science and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Akron. From there, he was offered a research assistantship at Florida State University to study micropaleontology and analyze sediments in mud from Antarctic ice cores.
“I kind of had a good sense of being able to pursue one’s dreams and have your job be a hobby,” he said. “Also just being a communicator and sharing things about our natural world with others became something that got me jazzed about it.”
Harwood spends a majority of his time in Antarctica analyzing sediments in the lab, but if he isn’t, he’s out in the field exploring the plains of Antarctica and searching for fossils from a warm and prehistoric past. With it being Antarctica, however, explorations and adventures are bound to be a little dangerous and unpredictable.
Harwood recalls some risky anecdotes out in the field such as blowing up glacial rock with dynamite, racing on sleds down an icy slope at about 50 miles per hour and even getting stuck out in the Antarctic plains for several weeks. Despite how chaotic and terrifying these events seem, Harwood recalls the memories fondly and said they make for great stories.
“It’s like in an Antarctic theater theme, there was ‘Lucky to be Alive,’ ‘Doing Stupid Stuff’ or ‘Right Place, Wrong Time.’” Harwood said, chuckling.
Amid all the harshness and hostility of Antarctica, Harwood reminisces on the beauty and moments of calmness of the continent. Harwood describes the place of having an extreme range of personality and remaining unknown with so much hidden beneath the ice.
“The real thing about Antarctica that is kind of magical, is that it can be fierce, and you’re fighting it, just trying to stay comfortable, but it can also be gentle and graceful,” Harwood said. “It can be so quiet you can hear your heartbeat.”
When Harwood isn’t on the icy plains of Antarctica, he’s back on the Great Plains in Lincoln, teaching earth and atmospheric sciences at UNL. Harwood has been teaching at UNL for more than 30 years. His Antarctic geoscience class allows him to bring his Antarctic experiences to the classroom and teach on the importance of sedimentology and climate change.
“It (the class) seems to resonate with some people and can be kind of a fun a class to enjoy learning,” Harwood said.
Harwood also is a good mentor, according to Molly Patterson, assistant professor at Binghamton University in the department of geological sciences and environmental sciences, who has worked with him for about 13 years.
“He’s always kind of calming to be around, and he’s always willing to provide any insight or guidance,” Patterson said. “He just never comes across as judgmental.”
She said she’s learned much from Harwood, who is willing to help at any time, even if it’s as big as writing proposals for science projects, or just editing an email draft.
Despite the excitement and adventure of being a traveler and scientist in Antarctica, Harwood said his focus is on research and communicating the importance Antarctica has in climate change and global warming.
“Antarctica is the biggest player in all of this right now,” he said. “It keeps things cold down there, but it has great potential for change.”
Antarctica also is the key to understanding past global warming and will help us prepare as the climate crisis looms, he said. If the the past can be revealed by the study of sediments in Antarctic ice cores, then the future of climate change can be predicted, he said.
“I sit down at my microscope and say, ‘Here we are, here’s my time machine,’ because my microscope is what allows me to look at the sediments to see what’s in there, and to see who lived when, so it’s like going back in time,” Harwood said.
Harwood encourages people to educate themselves about climate change, then spread the word. Individuals can make a difference collectively by voting for candidates in people who will care about climate change, buying local items to reduce worldwide shipping, growing their own produce and living more sustainably, he said.
“I am optimistic about the youth and about people’s perspective and the energy of that, but I am not optimistic about the short time we have,” he said.
Harwood said he enjoys teaching the Antarctic geoscience class because he gets to talk about the important issues of climate change and educate his students more on the topic. He hopes that he can inspire his students to make an effort in stopping climate change and spread the word about the impeding crisis.
“If I can have people be better citizens, better voters, informed science literacy and all that stuff, that’s my mission,” Harwood said. “As long as everybody walks away having learned something and has a positive view of science, that’s a win for everybody.”