Skyview grad Ashley Nelson finds adventure in Antarctica

23-year-old serving as research assistant at remote post while University of Oregon undergrad

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter



Views from Palmer Station, Antarctica

Last summer, Ashley Nelson's passion for ichthyology — the study of fish — compelled her to travel more than 8,000 miles from her studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore., to spend five months as a research assistant at Palmer Station, Antarctica.

On the Web

View a video of icefish in Palmer Station, Antarctica

View a webcam from Palmer Station, Antarctica

Read more about icefish research at Palmer Station, Antarctica:

Learn more about the University of Oregon's marine biology program at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in Charleston, near Coos Bay, Ore.

An overnight field trip to Sea World in San Diego in seventh grade changed the course of Ashley Nelson's life.

That experience whetted her desire to become a marine biologist. She's pursued that goal ever since.

Last summer, Nelson's passion for ichthyology — the study of fish — compelled her to travel more than 8,000 miles from her studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore., to spend five months as a research assistant at Palmer Station, Antarctica.

It was a long way from home for the 2009 graduate of Skyview High School.

Nelson's primary thesis teacher first told her about the Antarctica opportunity and said: "It sounds right up your alley."

When Nelson, 23, told her parents that she could spend five months researching icefish in Antarctica, but it would mean graduating a few months later than planned, her mom, Karen Nelson, said: "Go for it! It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

In May, Nelson flew to Santiago, Chile, and then to Punta Arenas, at the country's southern tip, at the foot of the Chilean Andes. There she was outfitted with gear and clothing needed to withstand the extreme winter weather of Antarctica.

Antarctica in the news

Antarctica was in the news recently thanks to an international rescue effort. The 52 passengers of the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalsi, stranded in Antarctica ice since Christmas Eve, were rescued Thursday via a helicopter which transported them to an Australian icebreaker, then a small boat and finally an Australian ship. The Russian ship left New Zealand Nov. 28, but a blizzard froze it in place about 1,700 miles south of Hobart, Tasmania. Previous rescue attempts by icebreakers failed, getting within 12 miles of the stranded ship. In some places, the ice was 10 feet thick. The rescued scientists and tourists will reach the Australian island state of Tasmania in about two weeks.

From a pier jutting into the Straits of Magellan, Nelson boarded the 250-foot ice-resistant vessel the RV Laurence M. Gould for the final leg of her journey, 647 nautical miles, the equivalent of 744 land miles. It took four days.

Nelson was one of only two undergraduate students chosen to work at Palmer Station, where she studied fish genetics with John Postlethwait, a University of Oregon biologist in a project funded by the National Science Foundation.

Icefish adaptation

Her research consisted of investigating the embryonic development of notothenioids, or icefish, which she defined as a suborder of fish unique to Antarctic waters. By studying how icefish adapted to the frigid Antarctic waters, researchers also are learning more about human diseases. Her research team also studied the impact of global climate change on icefish in one of the Earth's fastest-warming regions.

When they weren't doing research, students hiked what they called the "backyard," the space between the receding Mar Glacier and Palmer Station. At its coldest point during her visit, the temperature dipped to minus 14 degrees. Although Nelson had done some day hikes and car camping trips with her family, she said, "I'm not a winter sports person." She snowshoed for the first time, and observed seals and marine birds.

On her last Antarctic adventure, Nelson and other students were exploring the harbor in an inflatable Zodiak boat when hundreds of cormorants flew only 10 feet directly overhead. As the students captured the experience with their cameras, the flock circled back and flew over the boat again, then splashed down in the water near the boat.

A month after leaving Antarctica and returning to the University of Oregon, Nelson defended her undergraduate thesis based on her earlier studies at the university's Oregon Institute of Marine Biology near Coos Bay.

She passed with distinction, the highest possible mark.

Now she's working part time as a research assistant, looking for another research gig and saving money for graduate school.

"I never imagined going to Antarctica," Nelson said from her family's home in Salmon Creek. "If an amazing opportunity arises, don't let it slip from your hands. It could change your life."