MSU professor wins international award for Antarctic work
July 03, 2012
By Evelyn Boswell
MSU professor John Priscu will receive the SCAR Medal for Excellence in Antarctic Research on July 18 in Portland, Ore. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)
BOZEMAN – A Montana State University professor who is one of the leaders in a massive effort to explore the world beneath the Ross Ice Shelf has won an international award for his work in Antarctica.
John Priscu, a polar ecologist who has spent almost three decades studying the microbial ecology of Antarctic ecosystems, will receive the SCAR Medal for Excellence in Antarctic Research on July 18 in Portland, Ore.
The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), a committee of the International Council for Science, gives the medal every two years to someone who has made outstanding contributions to the knowledge and understanding of the Antarctic region, the link between Antarctica and the Earth system, and/or observations of and from Antarctica. Priscu is the fourth person to win the SCAR medal since it was first awarded in 2006.
“John is extremely deserving of this award,” SCAR President Mahlon (Chuck) Kennicutt II said in Priscu’s citation.
“His contributions to Antarctic science have been numerous, and his impact is great,” Kennicutt said. “John’s work has been of the highest quality, and his approach to Antarctic limnology, biogeochemistry and cryospheric ecology have been extremely innovative and will be the benchmark for others to follow. He has literally discovered life in many places where no one has expected it.”
Priscu said, “This award took me completely by surprise. There are many, many excellent scientists working in Antarctica, and this award could have gone to any of them. I am honored that my peers thought that my contributions to polar science have been significant.
“The past 28 years (and more to come) have been a fantastic time to be an Antarctic scientist,” Priscu added. “Our work on life in icy environments was originally called ‘hand-waving’ by many scientists. We have taken this field from a curiosity to a focused area of research that has an international following.”
Based in MSU’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Priscu said he enjoys Antarctic research because, “There is a new discovery of global significance to be made every time you turn the corner.”
Among other things, Priscu’s work has helped overthrow the thought that Antarctica was largely sterile of microbial life and simply a massive sheet of ice. His work has revealed gigantic freshwater lakes and rivers the size of the Amazon miles below the surface of the ice, a region he has called a “lost world.” Additionally, he found microbial life throughout the ice, calling it “living ice.”
He also enjoys the challenging environment of Antarctica, Priscu said.
“Nothing works as planned. You repair equipment as you go,” Priscu said. “Also, just getting there is a challenge.”
Kennicutt said Priscu is one of the leaders in investigating chemical, physical, geological and biological processes below glaciers. In addition to his leadership in sub-glacial lake research, Priscu has also conducted seminal work on the microbial ecology and biogeochemistry of sea ice, lake ice and the water columns of Antarctic lakes. He led the first research expeditions to study microbial dynamics in lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys during the polar night.
Priscu has published more than 200 manuscripts on polar systems and has been quoted extensively in national and international media. The latest round occurred after the Russians drilled through more than two miles of Antarctic ice in February to reach a freshwater lake untouched for millions of years and the size of Lake Ontario below the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Priscu has trained 65 graduate students, technicians and postdoctoral researchers in Antarctica. He was elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2010 and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2006. In 2009, he wrote an essay and appeared in a video that were part of a special National Science Foundation report commemorating the 200th birthday of naturalist Charles Darwin.
Priscu is current lead scientist and one of three directors of a U.S. team that plans to drill almost 3,000 feet through the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in January. That NSF-funded project called WISSARD, or the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project, involves a team of 14 researchers from nine institutions. The U.S. team is one of three groups planning to collect samples from the Antarctic ice in 2013. The others are Russian and British teams.
In addition, Kennicutt said Priscu has contributed to SCAR in numerous leadership roles. He has served on two U.S. National Academy of Sciences committees. He has been a member of several advisory committees for the NSF and NASA.
“His scientific productivity and his scientific leadership records are truly outstanding,” Kennicutt said.