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Nelson at the geographic South Pole (photos courtesy of LTJG Joseph Phillips, NOAA).

Nelson at the geographic South Pole (photos courtesy of LTJG Joseph Phillips, NOAA).

Think it’s cold?

Even a subzero University of Wisconsin Oshkosh campus, typically, has nothing on Antarctica.

In a brutal winter when many Wisconsinites have thought of nothing other than escaping the deep freeze, know that there is at least one UW Oshkosh alumna who didn’t flinch when an opportunity to punch in where people endure the coldest of cold presented itself.

Keri Nelson ’05 works at the South Pole.

Her Facebook profile says it all: “Lives in Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica.”

“There are aspects of being away from home and being in a busy environment that can be mentally challenging that people aren’t necessarily prepared for,” said Nelson, a graduate of the College of Nursing’s Accelerated Nursing Bachelors to BSN program. “But it was very exciting to be part of this program where science is the focus. There are thousands of people here forwarding knowledge.”

Nelson was a TV news reporter in the Fox Valley before making a career shift and enrolling at UW Oshkosh, pursuing and obtaining her nursing degree almost a decade ago. Now, while maintaining her registered nurse status, she works in Antarctica for a contractor affiliated with the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) United States Antarctic Program (USAP).  The NSF provides funding for scientists to conduct research that cannot be done as easily anywhere else on Earth.

While Antarctica is, no question, desolate, it is nevertheless a community, Nelson said. It’s the research home to some of the globe’s best scientists, people exploring humanity’s biggest mysteries, from Antarctica’s unique and extreme weather to the birth and nature of the universe.

“Scientists at the South Pole are studying cosmology, astrophysics — so much of the data we have about the ozone hole is coming from the NOAA site at the South Pole, which has been measuring the air quality for 50 years,” Nelson said.

Even the UW-System has planted its flag in the icy research landscape.

Francis Halzen, the principal investigator behind the neutrino particle detection telescope, “IceCube,” and the Hilldale and Gregory Breit Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been part of a landmark research team at the pole. The group’s groundbreaking work and discovery has been prominently featured by the USAP, NSF and science journals around the globe. IceCube has detected high-energy neutrinos, which are subatomic cosmic particles bombarding the Earth, emanating from the biggest, most powerful explosions in the universe.

Nelson’s role as a retail operations manager for what she humbly describes as the South Pole’s “7-11” has given her a front-row seat to some of the most high-profile research science anywhere.

She has worked alongside, hobnobbed with and befriended scientists who are examining the swirling weather patterns high above the Antarctic continent as well as those who are studying the Big Bang.

Nelson helps deploy a weather balloon surveying the weather patterns around Antarctica.

Nelson helps deploy a weather balloon surveying the weather patterns around Antarctica.

“There are even lightning studies down there,” said Nelson during a brief Feb. 14 phone interview opportunity while visiting McMurdo Station, Antarctica.  “… You get to rub elbows with these scientists and talk to them about what they are doing, and it’s a great opportunity.”

Nelson’s degree has also made her a valuable volunteer on any number of emergency response crew’s in Antarctica.

“All of these stations have really limited — just by nature of where we are — medical resources,” she said. “Depending on the size of the station and size of the season, I am required to be part of the emergency response team. Because I’m a registered nurse and continue to keep up that credential, I’m almost always on the medical response team.”

Nelson said she is frequently teaming up with EMTs, nurses and other people with wilderness training and expertise suited to surviving the hostile conditions.

She also had the opportunity to be a cast member in the 2013, award-winning documentary “Antarctica: A Year on Ice.” Nelson and colleagues were featured in the film, which focuses on the essential workers who help keep the heat on, engines running, bellies full and, generally, life sustained at the South Pole.

“It’s on the film festival circuit right now and winning lots of awards, too,” she said.


Day to day, life at the bottom of the planet is not as arduous as some might perceive, Nelson said. Indeed, some people live in tents for months in field camps. The environment is harsh.

“But the majority of us live in dorm-like structures,” Nelson said. “We eat in galleys. We probably eat a lot of the same foods as you do.”

“A lot of people have said, ‘Why would you want to go to Antarctica?’ My reaction is, ‘Why wouldn’t I want to go to Antarctica?’ Seeing the place was my initial thought. I had an instinct I would really like the community here, which I do. I love it — being part of something that is really motivational. So many countries get along here so much better than they are able to get along in other parts of the world. There is a treaty that says you can’t be here unless you can pursue peace and pursue science. …It becomes a really collegial peer society.”

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