South Pole hosts its first-ever PhD defense
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Photo Credit: Sasha Rahlin
Thomas Leps defends his PhD dissertation from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in October 2021.

South Pole hosts its first-ever PhD defense

A PhD student wintering in Antarctica became possibly the first person to successfully defend their dissertation from the South Pole.

Thomas Leps, who just completed his PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland, defended his dissertation remotely in October 2021 from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the U.S. Antarctic Program’s research station at the geographic South Pole. A dissertation is the written summary of a PhD candidate’s research, and defending it is the final step in completing a PhD degree.

“I've seen more than a few people defend their dissertations, and I know how much work it takes to get to that point,” said Sasha Rahlin, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station’s winter Science Lead. “I think it's very special that Thomas got to experience that at the South Pole with many of his winter cohort in attendance.”

Leps spent the austral winter of 2021 working as a satellite communications engineer for the station. Antarctic stations rely on satellites for internet connectivity because no underwater cables connect Antarctica to the other six continents. As a satellite communications engineer, Leps worked to ensure the station had a reliable internet connection during the hours when communications satellites were passing by.

Leps had planned to complete his PhD before starting his job in Antarctica, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed his research. His work focused on how magnetism affects metallic asteroids and how that may impact space missions to those asteroids, like NASA’s Psyche mission scheduled to launch in August 2022. Leps was writing computer software to simulate metallic asteroids, so it was feasible for him to finish his research remotely.

Leps’s academic advisor and dissertation committee were excited about him defending his dissertation from the South Pole, he said. As far as the station staff know, he is the first person to ever do so. The other scientists and support staff living on station were incredibly supportive of his efforts; about a third of the station staff watched him defend, even though it was at 1:00 a.m. on a weekday.

“Everyone was supportive and wanted to come out and see it,” he said. “The community in general just helped a lot.”

“The winter crew exists to support science at the South Pole and with a little help from his friends, it was great to see Thomas overcome the technical and logistical challenges to deliver a phenomenal defense in such a unique environment,” said Ryan Betters, the station’s winter manager.

Leps said he is especially grateful to the scientists working on the South Pole Telescope who let him use the telescope’s servers to run extra simulations for his research. And with all of his meals taken care of by station staff, he could focus all of his extra energy on writing.

“I didn’t have to worry about all the things that are hard when you're working on your dissertation,” Leps said. “It was all taken care of by the community.”

Leps is currently spending the austral summer in New Zealand but he will be returning to South Pole in February 2022 to work as a winterover scientist for the BICEP array, a radio telescope at the station scientists use to study the origins of the universe. Leps studied physics and cosmology as an undergraduate student and is excited about being part of the BICEP science team.

As a BICEP winterover, Leps will spend the long polar night making sure the telescope array runs smoothly and is always pointed in the right direction. He hopes to improve some of the telescope’s software while he’s there and is thinking of taking up the fiddle. But overall, he is glad to have had the opportunity to defend his PhD dissertation from the southernmost continent.

“The community really helped out and there's plenty of time and not a whole lot of distractions down there,” he said. “It worked out really well.”