Adventure is second nature to Webster alumnus Bob deValentino, BA ’98. The media communications major spent the summer after graduation working at an outdoor summer camp for children from disadvantaged families, then joined AmeriCorps to help Red Cross with disaster relief and emergency preparedness. He found his true calling, however, when he accepted a laborer position at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the southernmost place on Earth, in 1999. Since then, he’s worked at all three year-round research stations in the U.S. Antarctic Program, funded and managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Today, he’s winter site manager at Palmer Research Station. “I was looking for a job that was adventurous,” he says. “This was off the beaten path, outside of the normal places you might work. It’s very much the extreme.”
- My first season at the South Pole station, I worked the night shift doing things like shoveling snow and helping build a power plant. The South Pole is on a plateau--a flat, white expanse. It can be 70-below zero in the middle of winter and the max temperature in the summer is still below zero.
- It sounds cliche, but you get used to it. Once you learn to dress and prepare for the cold, it’s less intimidating. When you work in the cold and wind regularly, it just becomes part of your life. You get so used to snow that you don’t think about it anymore.
- I hopscotched around a bit, from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to McMurdo Station and now to Palmer Station, where I’ve been winter site manager for three years. We’re the smallest of the three research stations, with only 46 beds. The scientists here study marine biology, geophysics, the atmosphere. They look at things like how the local fish are affected by changes in their environment.
- I’m in logistics. As site manager, my role is to help lay the groundwork for the scientists so they can make the most of the time they have here. I act as a liaison between the science and operations departments to make sure the station’s operations are safe and efficient, and that we’re taking care of NSF requests. I’m also the first point of contact for any human resources or administrative issues. I set the tone and pace for the station. It’s kind of like being the mayor of a very small town.
- The health and survivability of this station rests on all of us getting along, which can be a challenge. Imagine living on an island with 17 of your coworkers.
- Some days, this is just a job like anywhere else. I have an office and work on spreadsheets and write emails. Then there are moments that are very unlike anywhere else, like walking outside and seeing a glacier. There’s also an excitement here that’s hard to capture in other jobs. There’s a strong feeling of mission.
- I find it completely fascinating. There are lectures frequently at the stations where the scientists share what they are doing. And I get to sit at the dinner table and talk to them for an up-close perspective of the science that I’m here to support. Everyone here is so passionate about what they are doing.
- When we’re not doing our jobs, we stay busy doing community tasks. It’s small here so everyone helps clean the station, top to bottom. In our off time, we head outside to hike, ski, or run. We also watch movies, read books, play musical instruments, call home to talk to our families. It’s not really too much different than anywhere else in the world. The weather affects us a little more, but we’re used to it.
- We’re not as cut off as previous decades have been. Working in the station is not the same Antarctic experience as being in a tent in a deep field. There are folks out there doing that, and I’ve done that. Here, we have Internet access and we can call home. We can get mail and fresh produce on the 10 ships that come here each year.
- The longest stretch without fresh food is usually about August to October. Our chefs do great with what they have. We may lack for fresh fruit and veggies at times, but we’ve never lacked for quantity or quality of food. It just gives you something to look forward--a fresh spinach salad or a banana.
- There tend to be three types of people of who in the U.S. Antarctic Program. There are those who do it once, and that’s all they wanted or they realize it’s not for them. There are folks who are in for a handful of years and then move on. Then there’s a huge block who are here for a long time, even longer than myself. There are parents and grandparents here. It’s not just a bunch of hermits or single 18-year-old guys. It’s a huge range of folks you wouldn’t have thought would be down here. That’s what makes it so rich. There’s a diversity of backgrounds and experiences.
- Being here is definitely a change of lifestyle, especially for relationships. Being gone half the year is challenging when it comes to having a home life in the real world. I met my wife, Jen, at McMurdo in 2004. We got married in 2010. We’ve spent a lot of time apart, most recently this March through October.
- Now, we will both be working at McMurdo until late February. Then we’ll head back to Colorado where I’ll work full-time in the office. It will be the first time we’ve been together for a whole year since 2011. Right now we’re fortunate that our career goals are lining up with our relationship goals.
- Moving forward, each year I’ll spend about half the year in Colorado and half the year in Antarctica. I’m hoping Jen and I will be at the same place at the same time more often. We may have to be apart again, but that’s part of this lifestyle. You go away to work and you miss your family like heck, but you appreciate the time you have with them when you’re home.
- I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years and I’ll keep doing it until it’s time to do something else. It’s too far to go and too large a sacrifice to not enjoy being here. I’ll keep going as long as it’s fun.
- The things we see and do in the Antarctic can’t compare to anywhere else. The work is extremely exciting, but even greater are the folks here. You are with these people every single day, all day long. If they weren’t good people, I wouldn’t come all this way and spend all this time away from my wife.