Let's Talk with Marge Porter about Sea Ice in Antarctica

Part of the Antarctica: The Farthest Place Close to Home Curriculum Collection.

Marge Porter is a high school teacher in Connecticut. In 1994, she was selected to participate in the Teachers Experiencing the Arctic and Antarctic (TEA) program. In Antarctica, she worked with Martin Jeffries, studying ice cores from sea ice. Her research experience convinced her to continue studying sea ice in a graduate degree program.

AMNH: Why should kids know about Antarctica?

Marge: Going to Antarctica was the single most important event in my life! It made me aware of how important it is to get out there and work with scientists–and to try something new whenever possible. I hope to show my students, particularly young girls, that they can do this too, and that life is full of learning and adventures.

AMNH: How can students everywhere be good stewards of our least known continent?

Marge: By realizing that all of their actions have consequences. Whether they choose to drive to school or take the bus makes a difference in terms of global climate change.

Researcher in a parka handling research materials.

Hometown Haddam, Connecticut
Major Influences "The teacher who supervised my student teaching made a big impression on me. The kids really respected him... [he helped me] realize that teaching is a process and I could learn right along with the students."
Number of Trips to Antarctica so far One

AMNH: What's so important about your field of study in Antarctica?

Marge: Understanding the nature of the ice is a small but important piece of the puzzle of trying to understand global climate change. The ice holds records of past climate change and can help us predict what can happen in the future. My work in Antarctica was also important because I brought it back to the classroom. In our classroom I worked with the students to make sea ice and lake ice and then analyze the difference. We used real data from my trip and graphed out snow thickness.

AMNH: What kinds of things were you studying in Antarctica?

Marge: We were looking at the crystalline structure of the sea ice in order to try to understand the conditions under which the ice formed. We investigated the age of the ice; salt drains out of the ice over time, so we measured its salinity. We also looked to see if the patterns in the ice changed from year to year.

AMNH: You worked on board an ice breaker while you were there. Describe a typical work day aboard ship.

Marge: If a glacier was present at a location in the past, it probably left a sediment layer of till–a poorly sorted mix of gravel and sand and mud. If a floating ice shelf later covered that same area, it probably left a layer of mud on top of the glacier's layer, maybe containing fossils of mollusks and microscopic animals. Once the ice shelf retreated, the open ocean covered the sea floor. It, too, has a signature deposit of a particular material, a mud that's green because it contains the chlorophyll of lots of microscopic algae called diatoms. Core samples can be dated, so we can tell when these various changes occurred.

AMNH: What is your most exciting memory of Antarctica?

Marge: When our boat finally left Chile for Antarctica, I remember thinking, "Wow, this is for real! Now there's no turning back." Three days later we were going out on the ice. The boat moved through chunks the size of a small living room, all connected by crevasses. I was terrified. It was so new to me and it took a while until I felt confident enough to be alone on the sea ice. I felt much more at ease later on when the ice floes were larger.

AMNH: How did you end up becoming a science teacher–and a teacher in Antarctica?

Marge: My family was always interested in science. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was younger, and I know my mom wanted me to become a surgeon. My dad was in a science-related field–he was a mortician. I was a biology major in college, and I was kind of ambivalent about getting my teaching certificate, but that changed once I started teaching. The first teacher under whom I worked made a big impression on me. The kids really respected him. The first day of class he had me lead the kids in dissecting a worm–only I had never done it before! I started to realize that teaching is a process and I could learn right along with the students. I've been teaching now for 21 years, and I'm still learning. When the National Science Foundation suggested that I apply for the Teachers Experiencing Antarctica program, I didn't expect to get picked. When I got the call from the scientist with whom I would work, I thought that my friends were pulling a prank and pretending to be him! But when I realized it was for real I was so happy I was jumping out of my skin!