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SA’s all-women Antarctic research group sets sail

In a first for South Africa, Rhodes University will send an all-women team to Antarctica to carry out microbiology experiments.

Gwynneth Matcher and her two PhD students, Karin Staebe and Sunet van Aswegen, will head south on the annual South African summer relief voyage leaving on 30 November and returning next February.

Matcher’s two students will join researchers from other institutions aboard the Agulhas II, which is expected to reach Antarctica in mid-December. Matcher will join them in Antarctica by air, as there is limited space on the ship. Another Rhodes team, led by Ian Meiklejohn, will study Antarctic geomorphology.

“The team is the first South African team, made up entirely of women to be working at SANAE [the South African National Antarctic Expedition base], and with the South African programme. It is rare, but the two teams going down have made great strides in promoting women in science,” says Meiklejohn.

While the team came together organically, the results is a pleasant surprise, said Matcher in a statement: “It wasn’t planned, but it is very exciting leading an all-female team.”

Matcher says that she usually combines her field research team with Meiklejohn’s, who is an Antarctic research veteran. This year however she will be based mostly around the Jutulsessen area, which is the area around the Norwegian Troll base, while Meiklejohn will be mostly active in the vicinity of the South African base.

The microbiology team will examine meltwater pools, soil and air to determine whether the continent should be divided into new bio-geographic regions.

South Africa is the only African nation with a research base on the Antarctic continent. The latest incarnation of the SANAE base, the forth one, was opened in 1997.