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John Priscu Ecology professor John Priscu still rides a Harley and plays guitar in a rock-and-roll band, but today he's also an internationally known polar biologist. (Stephen Hunts photo)

Life in ice lures
scientist to Antarctica

By Evelyn Boswell

John Priscu lived in the developed desert called Las Vegas when he was younger, the son of a chemical engineer who was so handy he repaired shoes with old tires. While tourists basked in the mild Las Vegas winter or baked in its summer heat, Priscu played his guitar at nightclubs to put himself through college. Sometimes he'd take his motorcycle and flee the city for Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam.

Now, a couple of decades and countless gigs later, the Montana State University ecologist still plays guitar, this time with the Textbook Blues. The father of a teenage daughter continues to stay up late performing, rides a Harley and hangs out around lakes and deserts.

But the Priscu of today is also a polar biologist of international renown. His findings appear in scientific journals, as well as popular publications such as Time, Newsweek, Discover and National Geographic. He's been on BBC and CNN and in major newspapers in the U.S and Europe. Most recently, the Byrd Polar Research Center awarded him the 2003 Goldthwait Medal for outstanding contributions to polar research.

The rock-and-roll scientist belongs to a long list of national and international committees, including one that coordinates studies for Antarctica, which was set aside some years ago solely for research. As part of that committee, Priscu heads a group of specialists working out how to sample water from ice-covered lakes without contaminating them.

Priscu's busy speaking circuit takes him everywhere from Washington, D.C., to Amsterdam and Italy, but he still takes the time to answer the e-mails of school children. The American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology asked him to address its annual meeting this November in Alabama.

Priscu's Nevada background set the stage for his study of desert reservoirs, but the waters that occupy him today are covered by glaciers and ice. The desert he now researches is thousands of miles south and thousands of feet higher than the one where he spent his youth. In the worst of times, it's a couple hundred degrees colder.

"Antarctica is the coldest place on earth," said Priscu who has traveled there for 19 years and generally heads to the worlds southernmost and highest continent in late fall.

The first time, he joked in a lecture at the Museum of the Rockies last winter, people go to Antarctica for adventure. The second time they go for the pay. The third time they go because they dont fit into society any more. Priscu said he continues to go because of the science. New scientific discoveries are just waiting to be made if you know where to look.

Priscu's drawn to Antarctica for the life that exists in its ice. (J. Priscu photo)

It's a continent known for unusual characters and an unequalled climate. Priscu endures the cold by wearing expedition-weight underwear topped by a fuzzy polypropylene suit, a jumpsuit and a huge down coat with a tunneled hood lined with coyote fur. He wears three layers of gloves and thick rubber bunny boots. He repairs his brittle equipment with the skills he picked up from his fix-it father.

In spite of the conditions, he's attracted to Antarctica because of the life that exists in its ice, Priscu said. Its a much subtler life than he'd find if he focused on penguins that live elsewhere in Antarctica or the barking seals of the Arctic. It's a life no one used to believe existed. A life that requires a microscope and opens the mind to possibilities of life on Mars, whose climate partially mirrors that of Antarctica.

"I like to tell my students we are on the cutting edge of this research, but more than that, we developed the field of biology in ice systems," Priscu said. "We initiated this field of research. No one else was really doing it, but it is catching on."

Priscu started his Antarctic career as a scientist for the New Zealand government. After focusing on freshwater lakes, his emphasis evolved. He now concentrates on what's called the deep cold biosphere, which includes glacial ice, sea ice and permafrost. He is best known for his findings about the ice-covered lakes in Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys-findings that ricocheted around the world three years ago.

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Life on Ice | Big things from tiny technology | Avalanche Research | Searching Through Hell
Genetics are key to those amber waves of grain | From the bone beds and back
Finding hope in hard times | Group rethinks radar with lasers and crystals | Foreword | Home
Student passion, purpose create "Way of the Warrior"
Chemistry sounded good until the sinus infections
Research Notes | Faculty and Student Awards | Research Expenditures for Fiscal Year 2003

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