OREM — Josh Heward was all smiles and laughs as he described his expedition to Antarctica and the trip's research focus: a highly resilient, plate-armored, claw-legged monstrosity that crawls along the frosted earth.
To some, the nearly unkillable tardigrade, or “water bear,” might conjure the image of a sci-fi horror monster. Luckily, this creature is only about a millimeter in size, and Heward was able to study the creatures in relative safety. The only danger, surviving one of the most remote research sites in the world.
Heward, a Timpanogos High School biology teacher, spent the month of January in Antarctica as part of the Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating, or Polar TREC, program. As part of a 10-person team living at the McMurdo Station research facility, Heward worked to study an organism of miniscule size but of tremendous scientific significance.
"I was surprised by just the amount of collaboration we had out there," Heward said, adding that he hopes to bring more teamwork into his classroom lab settings.
Heward said the opportunity to go to Antarctica helped him rethink his teaching method, moving away from the "cookbook" procedure he has seen in many classrooms during his 10 years of teaching.
But the process of getting to Antarctica is no simple task, and Heward worked hard to prepare his family and his students for a month of his absence.
BYU biology professor Byron Adams had known Heward for nearly 10 years when he began the process of preparing for a trip to Antarctica through the Polar TREC program. Adams met Heward through the research network while Heward studied black bear behavioral ecology and worked as adjunct faculty at Utah Valley University.
"He went from studying great big black bears to tiny little water bears," Adams said.
Heward said his love of hiking and the outdoors led to a passion for biology. Research became an interest, but teaching soon took hold of Heward, driving him toward public education.
"It's the best of both worlds," he remarked of his dual role as a teacher and a researcher.
Heward directed field trips to tardigrade research sites around the country and brought his own high school students to join Adams' university students. It was through their shared research that Heward and Adams developed a friendship.
Though much of the research on tardigrades has involved soil sampling throughout the United States, the frozen landscape and simple ecosystem of Antarctica present a unique opportunity to study the miniscule organisms in a more easily controlled setting.
As Heward became aware of an opportunity to study in Antarctica, as well as Adams' own years spent on the remote continent, the two began the process of applying for a teacher-researcher joint project. Heward submitted the paperwork nearly 18 months before any travel plans could be made. It was from there that the real preparation began.
Getting to the bottom of the world is no simple task. Months are needed to simply justify the trip and approve logistics for the expedition.
"It's like going to the moon," Adams said.
"We actually go through Christchurch, New Zealand," Heward said. "We spent a day there just getting outfitted, and then we arrived in McMurdo Station. There were like three days worth of training and orientation meetings."
Life at McMurdo is complicated, with its emphasis on minimizing environmental impact from humans. Internet is slow and cellphone reception is nonexistent at the research site. Living quarters are also cramped at the camp, which is a part-time home to thousands.
Heward said everyone is asked to conserve resources and leave little trace. They took four showers a week and limited their electricity use. Teams in the field even had to gather their own waste, he said, to avoid contaminating the near pristine conditions of the continent.
Adams remarked that when an auditing team came to examine research practices, its members were shocked by the limitations and asked how any science could be conducted under such conditions.
"You can't mess something up. These experiments are long-term experiments," Adams said. "If you dump the wrong chemical in the wrong spot, you just screwed up 30 years worth of research."
Heward's team took advantage of the uninterrupted sunlight of the Antarctic summer, working from about 7:30 in the morning to 11:30 at night most days.
The team would frequent less icy areas, collecting soil samples containing tardigrades for much of the day before heading back to McMurdo. The team would then rinse the samples through a sieve.
Under the right conditions, the creatures will dehydrate their bodies in a process known as anhydrobiosis, causing them to enter a suspended state where biological functions stop. This allows the tardigrade to withstand temperatures as high as 300 degrees farenheit or near absolute zero, as well as extreme doses of radiation and pressurization.
Heward recalled one of his favorite moments was in being stuck in the field for four days when weather conditions halted helicopter transport. He became enthralled by the "surreal" nature of the empty land, and his team was able to extend its research and gather more diverse samples.
A tardigrade's ability to suspend itself in an inactive state has led to searches for applications, including a Defense Department project to freeze-dry blood for soldiers wounded in combat. For Adams, however, the focus has largely been on watching the environmental effects on biology. He said he could watch as a changing climate alters the research conditions in Antarctica's simple ecosystem.
"It is an exciting time to be in biology, both for that biomedical stuff and also for the ecological stuff that we are doing," Adams said.Comment on this story
For Heward, returning to classes was a learning experience in its own way. He admitted he was surprised by how much he missed his students and by how excited he was to integrate his experiences into teaching.
In addition to giving a talk about his adventure at the Orem Public Library this week, Heward said he had a number of ideas for future research with Adams and for creating a pilot research course for his school.
"As a teacher, the thing we hope for most is to get students excited about what we are excited about," Heward said.
Though he admits not every student will be moved to pursue an adventure to the South Pole, he hopes to inspire his students.