Published: Jan 30, 2012
Learn how Dr. Bindschadler got inspired to be a scientist and to lead 14 expeditions to Antarctica and visit glaciers and ice regions across the globe. Dr. Robert Bindschadler kindly participated in a question and answer session. Find out more about his fascinating career in Earth and space sciences, what motivates him, and what advice he has for you!
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist?
It probably goes way back to admiring my father, who was a scientist by training. My siblings and I had the microscopes and chemistry sets that were common “toys” at that time. Science was getting more popular with the International Geophysical Year and NASA’s space program.
Who or what has been your scientific inspiration?
Father first, then Mr. DiVito in 9th grade science. He was an assistant football coach, so it seemed OK to like science without being labeled to “geekish”.
What's the most exciting part of your research?
Working out how the complexities of our world, literally our world, works. What matters to what and how does a change in one place work through all the linkages to affect things in many other places. I feel like I am a detective solving mysteries by searching for clues and weaving the information together to tell a logical story supporting the evidence. Great fun and very satisfying. In addition, there is the absolute thrill of discovery—either being somewhere where no one has ever been, or being the first person to see (or realize) something.
When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?
The drive to find a solution is rewarded by the satisfaction of overcoming the challenge. Roadblocks sometimes lead me to reassess whether it is either important to overcome the challenge as a step toward the larger goal, or whether there might be a better route to take. This can be valuable and avoid wasting energy working through an inefficient method. Usually, I am attracted to doing the hard problems that I feel I have the skill to solve and frustration is part of the process. A life that is always easy would not appeal to me.
What do you take to comfort you when you’re out in the field/on the ice?
My own thoughts and all my senses—they sharpen noticeably in the field. Books and music for the longer quiet periods. Very strong friendships are also formed by team members when they share the intense isolation.
What's the strangest place/situation you've been?
At the edge of the Crary Ice Rise on the Ross Ice Shelf, there are massive blocks of ice jumbled together—a bit like being an ant in an icebox tray full of ice cubes. Looking straight up and straight down and across and being completely surrounded by broken ice was humbling.
Hanging on a rope within a crevasse has also put me into a totally foreign world. Again the scale of large crevasses 10’s of meters deep and 100s of meter long can be awe-inspiring.
What aspect of your research/science would you happily do away with?
The rigors of traveling to get there.
Where do you see your research taking you?
Science is wonderful in the sense that answering one set of questions almost always leads to new questions in need of new answers. For me the big goal is still being able to reliably predict how ice sheets will respond to climate change in the next few decades (and possibly centuries). I try to relate my personal research to how it contributes to this larger goal. The processes at the edge of the ice sheet, where the thick ice flows into the ocean seem particularly important. I’d like to spend more time focused on this region and better understand the interaction of forces there.
How have your friends/relatives who are not scientists reacted to your career/research?
I sense that my friends’ reactions range between admiration and jealousy. They are usually interested in what I explain to them is being learned in my field. I am not comfortable being put on a pedestal and try to communicate that science is mostly being curious, that science can be done on many levels, and that everyone can “do” science.
How have you related your research to increase scientific understanding in the general public and policy makers?
Communication to the public and decision makers is now recognized as a very essential aspect of being a scientist. Success usually entails stripping away all the lovely little details (that scientists love to include and about which scientists love to talk among themselves) to get to the main message. There is usually is a pretty simple underlying message. Scientists probe the unknown but the message to the public and policy makers needs to focus on what is known and what once-unknown has now been learned. That audience is very, very different from an audience of peer scientists.
What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?
YES, DO IT!! If it’s not right for you, you will discover it before long. If you are interested in science, there is a place in science for you. Expose yourself to the rich variety of science pursuits (including reporting science and managing science) and follow what interests you most.
What has been your experience of working for a government agency (NASA) and does it contrast with working in academia?
It hasn’t been as different in my 30+ years with NASA as it might have been. My years at NASA were spent during a time when many new satellite sensors were being developed requiring the inputs from university scientists as well as federal scientists and engineers. My Antarctic work allowed me to be on the both sides of the satellite sensors—as a NASA scientist developing new ways of working with satellite data, as well as being a more traditional field scientist, collecting data in traditional ways to compare with the satellite-derived measurements. Now there is more of a push for NASA scientists to be less field-focused and more satellite-mission focused. I think I had the best of both worlds.
Dr. Bindschadler is a co-author of the AGU book Antarctic Subglacial Aquatic Environments, recognized as a benchmark in the history of subglacial lake exploration and study, containing up-to-date discussions about the history and background of subglacial aquatic environments and future exploration.