Geologic field work has taken Asmara Lehrmann from the banks of the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country to the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, but the 2019 Trinity University graduate’s latest adventure has been her biggest—and coldest—yet. From January through the end of March, Lehrmann, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in geology at the University of Alabama, lived and worked aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer, a research ship studying the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.
Roughly the size of Florida, the Thwaites Glacier buttresses the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. “It essentially acts as a bottle cap, keeping the ice sheet from flowing out into the ocean,” explains Lehrmann. “If it were to collapse, there would be a significant contribution to sea level rise.” She was part of a team of sedimentologists and geophysicists studying the history of the glacier; their research informs predictions about exactly what effects the glacier’s retreat might have.
Lehrmann worked the night shift, studying the micropaleontology of sediment cores that the team collects. “Each layer of sediment is like a page in a book that tells the story of the past,” she explains. The desire to gain a deeper understanding of history through geology seems to run in the family: Asmara’s father, Daniel Lehrmann, Ph.D., is a professor of geosciences at Trinity, teaching courses on paleontology and sedimentary geology. “Even though I tried very hard to be in a different sub-field of geology than my dad, I find that we are still quite similar,” she says. “I think we are both pulled to the beauty of another world revealed to us through fossils and the rock and sediment record.”
Despite the Antarctic’s unpredictable conditions, research happens 24/7 on the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer. “Every day I woke up with a vague idea of what might be happening on board, but when I got to the lab, usually something different is going on,” explains Lehrmann. ”We had to work with the ocean, weather, and ice to do our science.” Partway through their trek, the ship had to make an unexpected detour to rescue a stranded fishing vessel and escort it to safety. Although the effort paused the ship’s primary projects for several days, Lehrman remained optimistic: “Everyone was safe, and each science party got new data from the cruise. All was not lost!”
All those on the ship—from the scientists and students, to the crew and support staff—became part of a tight-knit community, encouraging one another in moments of homesickness or frustration, sharing treats (like Oreos or chocolate bars) and meals, and enjoying time together, outside of their work, with activities like game and movie nights. “I love the attention that we all paid to physical and mental health while on board,” she says. “I learned a lot about how to be on a healthy team.”
Although this voyage was Lehrmann’s first time at sea, she came to feel right at home. “I tried to go outside on deck every time the sun was shining and the waves were low. I never got used to the beauty of the icebergs and the sky.” Her first week on board, she noted a particularly magnificent sunrise, with colors shifting from purple to orange. “I went up to the bridge, stepped outside on the deck, and took a moment to reflect about all of the hard work I did at Trinity and all of the mentors who helped guide me to this moment,” she recalls. “I was overwhelmed with the feeling of gratefulness for those four transformative years. They led me to this opportunity to study topics I am so passionate about, in a new environment that I fell in love with more and more each day.”