I was going to speak with Oksana Savenko, a biologist, who managed to become a member of the 23d Antarctic expedition (even though it is only a seasonal expedition), before the expedition set off, but because of some reasons, I couldn’t do it. Although Opinion told about the expedition, daily routine and most frequent problems in the article on March 26 “A year in Antarctica: our explorers about life among penguins and albatrosses”. Reading those short posts on Facebook which explorers wrote very rarely (only one storm they survived crossing the Drake Strait, was a real challenge!), I knew already then: we would definitely speak with Oksana because Antarctica is a female in the Ukrainian language and despite its hard and sometimes even cruel temper, it deserves to be seen by woman’ eyes. Today, Oksana Savenko, a scientist of the National Antarctic Science Centre and the Ukrainian Scientific Centre of Marine Ecology, a member of the 23d seasonal Antarctica expedition, talks about her experience in an Academic Vernadsky Polar Station.
What is your greatest impression of the expedition? What did you remember the best?
You know, I have dreamt about an Antarctic expedition since I was a child when I adored reading books about geographical discoveries and a tough polar weather. That was inspiring me the most so I am still impressed that my dream is coming true. Even though it is only the first step, I hope I will manage to do all the way. What about concrete events… It still seems to me that I will remember each day of the expedition, although there were really extremal moments. The first part of the last expedition, a small group of Ukrainian scientists of the seasonal expedition, where I worked, collaborated with American colleagues in their Palmer polar station.
To get to this station we had to start our way from a Chilean town of Punta Arenas by an icebreaker Laurence M. Gould. Our first attempt to cross the Drake Strait to get to the Antarctica Peninsula was followed by a huge storm. Even though all the members acted as one (there was no time for panic!), there were some accidents anyway. Our American colleague – one of the leaders of the expedition – got injured. He fell down and broke several bones. We had to turn back immediately and sail to Argentina so he could get a medical help there. We reached the town of Ushuaia through the Beagle Channel and left our colleague in a hospital. His another colleague agreed to stay in a hospital until his wife came.
Is your current work in America connected with your journey to Antarctica?
Yes, this summer, I studied in the USA. I was lucky to win an international scholarship of the Society of Conservation GIS (geo informational systems). Scholars and professors from more than 20 countries were there. We didn’t only study together but, what more important, we communicated, took part in conferences, shared our experience. Due to it, we could not only explore each other but learn about the mindsets of other countries. Believe me, it is a valuable experience.
What is an attitude of overseas scientists to their Ukrainian colleagues?
The attitude is great, you shouldn’t worry. My report on our research was taken warmly, there were many questions and interesting discussions. Also, I had an opportunity to meet my partners from the Antarctica expedition – it is a group of scientists from the California University. I met some of them in the American Palmer Station, with others, we had been messaging for a long time as to our future collaboration. We made a very interesting program of mutual researchers.
Of course, being a field zoologist, I couldn’t fail to visit whales. Even a short excursion to Monterey Bay allowed me to get valuable data about marine mammals – I shared it with my colleagues who did marine researches in California.
I know that some mutual Antarctica projects with overseas scientists are going to happen. Tell us please, what exactly?
In the next expedition, we will take a biopsy from whales with a help of a special arbalest. It will help to conduct some genetic research, to determine the sex of a whale, study its hormonal state. It will help to determine the per cent of pregnant females. We also want to find out whether whales’ tissues have any infections and polluters. I want to focus on taking DNA samples from the environment, first of all, from sea and ocean water. It will allow studying a state of an ecosystem where whales are living and also to conduct population and genetic research using the most advanced methods. Americans found my program interesting and agreed to take water samples for my research in those Antarctica regions where they would work the next season.
You seem to like whales much…
Yes, these are unique animals. Every whale has its own unrepeatable colouring. Thus, one more direction of work we plan is a collaboration with scientists from different countries to identify whales by photos. What is it about? We will compare photos of whales from Antarctica with photos of whales from their propagation areas to determine their migration routes. Basing on data about their repeated meetings, we will also determine a structure and their population size.
We also hope to commence marking seals and researching cetaceans with an acoustic method. I am now negotiating with several groups of potential partners from America as well as from Europe.
Will you have enough time to do all you have planned?
Well, the research plan is almost ready. Now we have to choose proper technical appliances, speak with scientists and engineers, but we have started this step as well, So, I think we will be OK with time.
Before the 23d expedition set off, I had an interview with Yevhen Dyky, the head of the Antarctic Centre, who said that you used to work in a Russian expedition but then returned to Ukraine. What made you do this?
Yes, it is true. I was being a member of Russian expeditions for eight years. We were studying marine mammals. But I stopped working in Russia after the annexation of Crimea. However, it was informal, and now I help some Russian colleagues with environmental issues.
What research exactly were you conducting there?
My first expedition was on studying sturgeons on the Solovetskie Islands (White Sea) which was conducted by scientists from the Shyrshov Institute of Ocean Science. The rest of the time, I was working at the Russian Far East: on the Kuril and Komandorskie Islands, Kamchatka, Sakhalin. These were projects on studying seals and whales.
Do our men really want not to let a woman with such experience winter in Antarctica?!
I hope they will change their minds (smiles). I was working for four years in a project which studied the population of a Steller’s sea lion. The population has tragically reduced – 90% in 100 years. This unique long-term project is headed by Volodymyr Burkhanov, who is working in Russia and the USA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The point is that only an international work can save endangered species which are spread on areas of several countries.
If you don’t mind my asking – how did your Russian colleagues treat you?
In short, they were friendly. Because usually, we had international expeditions where, except for Russians, Americans, Japanese and Ukrainians took part. The projects were mostly funded by the USA, Russia gave little money.
My colleagues were often saying that Crimea had to be Russia’s. They constantly asked me to say something in Ukrainian so they could make jokes out of it. But sometimes it is hard to tell a friendly joke from a chauvinism. Some discussions made me upset but then I didn’t feel that gap which is between us now.
How did they take your decision to come back to Ukraine?
You know, it may be surprising, but I still have good friends there. Some of them treat the situation adequately, some are more influenced by an aggressive propaganda. They don’t have a right idea of what is happening in Ukraine, but sometimes they understand what role Russia plays. In fact, it is really hard for me to end my relationship with some of my Russian friends and colleagues. I can close my eyes on many things because I once used to live with that person on a deserted island, and we were fully dependant on each other. Such people are special to me, they are always in my heart. My Russian colleagues used to come often to Kyiv – to visit me and see the city. Today, unfortunately, we communicate mostly at international conferences. But I believe I made a right decision.
Let’s get back to your participation in the Antarctica expedition. Who can you count on without a doubt?
During the expedition? I think you can count on a person you have been working with for a long time and you have overcome some obstacles. I don’t have much experience with my colleagues from the Antarctica community yet, but I am sure those people are reliable. People who have wintered together at a station for at least one year, usually have a special attitude to each other. A “polar brotherhood” is an interesting thing. They say that people who had some conflicts at a station can even become friends and help each other the rest of their lives. I can easily believe it.
Before the last expedition, I also had a talk with Victor Sytovy, a head of the 23d expedition, who, by the way, took part in the first expedition when the Academic Vernadsky Station became Ukrainian. He said that they needed no women at the station because, in short, it will be calmer for everybody. What do you think?
It is quite a painful question for me. Ukrainian men, polar explorers are really against women in expeditions. I think I won’t be wrong if I say that all men, without an exception, are against. Because I haven’t met any polar explorer who speaking with me and learning that I intend to winter at the station in the next expedition, doesn’t begin saying that a polar station is not a place for women. Along with that, they treat well women-scientists and concrete women as well – it’s like “nothing personal”.
Such conversations are always the same, proof-points are always the same, quite limited. Such a conversation always starts with words “don’t take me wrong, I’m not a chauvinist.” When my colleagues- Americans wonder what proof-points against women polar explorers are, I feel awkward to even repeat some things. You see, I sometimes feel embarrassed for our men and Ukraine in general. But I try to take any information seriously to understand what I will deal with if I manage to become a member of a long-term expedition. However, I haven’t heard yet a relevant proof-point that could be a real reason not to participate in an expedition. I believe that most arguments against women in expeditions will disappear after the first successful experience of such a mutual work.
Yes, Yevhen Dyky believes that a Ukrainian woman-scientist has to be in Antarctica.
Yevhen, and he is, by the way, a biologist, follows progressive beliefs. I have known him since I was a student. Once I came to Karadag to study dolphins, and he was a leader of a field trip for Kyiv Mohyla Academy students. Even though I was studying at another university, they took me into their “family”. Yevhen knew how I dreamt about expeditions in Antarctica. He has always supported, gave some advice, helped me as well as all his former students. We worked well together at the Ukrainian Scientific Centre of Marine Ecology.
By the way, the Centre of Marine Ecology is my second job. It is headed by Victor Komorin – also a unique manager. And if each of them manages to get free of their office “captivity” and to participate with their colleagues in an expedition, they are ready to work all day and night, doing any work.
What do you mean?
I remember some of them personally entering my observation data into a table because I had my eyes hurt after a day of watching dolphins. There were days when they like volunteers (!) were counting trash in water for hours or were filtering water at nights to get DNA samples to help and give their workers some rest. And they also did their own program work. Interestingly, workers of both organizations headed by them have an experience of working in Antarctica and a program of a future collaboration. Such positive changes must happen, particularly, in attitude to women in Antarctica expeditions.
By the way, due to a principle position of Yevhen Dyky, conditions to be taken to an Antarctica expedition are the same for men and women: to win a competition and have a good health state. There wasn’t a formal competition yet but we know some people who are going to apply for the next expedition. You know, I would really like to work with these people. Of course, I am afraid something will go wrong but worrying is normal…
What was your work during the seasonal expedition? Did you study whales?
We had different kinds of research. We had a little time to take many samples, using different methods. Those were orders of scientists from many Ukrainian and some European scientific organizations. I had no special time to study whales, but we were very lucky that we could see many whales during our voyages to places where we took samples. So I had a chance to work with whales as well. Moreover, I was lucky – I saw a southern right whale near our station for the first time!
Is it hard for a woman to survive in such severe conditions?
To be honest, I don’t think so. But my case is not typical. I worked a lot in conditions much more severe than working at a station. At Russian Far East, we worked a lot on crab boats. We had to make plank beds in a ship’s hold, where we lived all together: men and women. And when I don’t have a separate not only women’s but any cabin, it is never a problem.
In Antarctica, men tried to create special conditions for me, however, I didn’t need that. Working in our station, you can work at sea or on islands, and when you come back, you are met not only with a warm lunch but with a warm shower as well. There was not such an opportunity in expeditions I am used to working. When we had a day off, we went sailing on zodiacs (inflatable boats) with a dawn and came back almost at night. We had to ease ourselves out at sea. During it, our colleagues – men and women, turned back and discussed something loudly. It was a work need, so there was no problem with that. As well as a need to shift zodiacs, engines and equipment for hundreds of meters to water. We had to do it while being dressed in heavy costumes and gumboots which were stuck in the dirt.
When I was working four field trips at the cliff Dovha, there were no warm shower and washing machines, which “Vernadsky” has. Moreover, there wasn’t even enough water. We brought it for several months. So each member had only a bucket of water for a week to wash his or her clothes and themselves. So to save water men bravely had a shower not as often as girls: only once in ten days. It was very cold there, so I had to sleep in two warm sleeping bags, a hat and skiing costume instead of pyjamas for months.
In the Vernadsky Station, it is warm, and there are beds with clean linen. I have worked in groups which included women and men, and in groups where I was the only woman. So I believe I am ready to work in such conditions: physically and psychologically as well. I can’t really understand why our men polar explorers are afraid that women won’t be able to work with them equally. For example, shovelling away snow or some other things. Can it be another way? Only people who are professionals must go to Antarctica.
How did men treat you? Did they flirt or you were an equal partner for them?
I was there for a short time, so I think that a seasonal expedition, and especially such beginners as I, were there rather like guests than members of the team. Everybody was helping to fulfil my research program, treated me well. I guess men thought I was a bit strange I often worked at night, didn’t communicate much. On the Easter Day and a celebratory expedition shift, men dressed out, and I didn’t even have time to change clothes and ran up at the eleventh’s hour in a working pullover and jeans wet of sea water which I had just been filtering.
In some minutes, I ran away to change filters again. The whole night, I was running from a lab to the party and back. I was said that it was a sin to work on such a holiday, and I answered that in my case, it would be a sin not to work. I was upset and embarrassed that I couldn’t help my colleagues to cook a dinner because they had been cooking it for almost two days together. I decided then to save my research program instead of earning their respect.
They say that whether you fall in love with Antarctica or, vice versa, can’t like it. What is your attitude to it?
I felt there at my own place at once. But I don’t like to romanticize a work in Antarctica. It is up to men (laughs). I wouldn’t like to announce my feelings about it – it is private.
What is the most difficult there? What are you lack?
I am not a demanding person so I think there is everything needed for life and work. As for difficulties, I guess I had little time at the station so I didn’t meet any difficulties yet. Those people who spent there at least a year can tell about some psychological issues and tougher work conditions when it is the coldest time of the year…
So we definitely should meet after you winter in Antarctica. Don’t you mind?
I don’t! If I have a possibility (you may know that there are problems with the Internet connection at the station), I will sometimes tell what life is like at the Vernadsky station. In fact, what our polar explorers do, is very important for the country. It is not only an important but extremely interesting work. So people have a right to know about this work not only when an expedition is setting off or coming back…
Is your thesis about whales?
Yes, about whales but about small ones: I study the regularity of cetacean distribution in the Black Sea. I am now on the homestretch: processing data and getting ready to defend a thesis. You know I am lucky to have met “three whales” in my life which play important roles in it. These are two directors I have mentioned and Ihor Dzverin, my Thesis Director. He is a head of the Developmental Morphology Department in the Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology. These people are the first to suffer from my failures, but they still support my initiatives and I appreciate that. When there is a temptation to get disappointed with myself, I always remember that I have no moral right to let others down…
What do you do in Odesa?
I moved to Odesa from Kyiv in June 2015. I was invited to commence a studying of marine mammals in the Ukrainian Scientific Centre of Marine Ecology.
Did you doubt?
Not even a minute! Three days were enough for me to take my dog and move to Odesa. Today, there is already a group in the Institute for studying marine mammals. It includes three scientists, technical specialists, students and volunteers often join us as well. We asset the state of marine mammals population in the Black Sea – we work at sea and ashore. All we used to study cetacean in Crimea: only I am a Kyivan out of four people, the rest used to live and work in Crimea before it was annexed.
I also study marine birds. I have also been into studying the problem of macro-trash sea pollution – our Centre conducts some research within an international project. The last year, I began working in a molecular-genetic lab with samples of tissues of dead whales (I study bacterial infections and a population structure), and also with environmental DNA samples. It is not only important but also interesting.
It is great that it is both important and interesting. But can a Ukrainian woman-scientist build her financial capability?
Theoretically, yes. Because my colleagues manage to get married and have children. I guess that my limit now is to earn for my basic needs and for my dog. Because I have a bad habit – to spend all the extra money on researching. We had some international projects which let earn some additional money but I didn’t feel any changes in my living standard because I always immediately bought a ticket for an international ferry Odesa-Istanbul or Odesa-Batumi. Or I rented a boat for a dolphin photo identification. I bought some equipment…
I am happy that I managed to involve some international partners in our Antarctic research, they are ready to share with us their equipment and facilities. So I could do something useful for the station, not as I come when everything is ready. It is principally important for me. However, it won’t influence my salary. All money I got from Americans for food during my studying, I spent on books for a library at our Antarctic station. I managed to buy books about Antarctic research history, atlases, monographs and others. So these books will be useful for my colleagues. In one small bookshop in the Californian town of Davis, I even managed to buy a book by an English scientist who had been working at our station for four years when it belonged to Britain and was called “Faraday”! The author described well a daily routine and work at the station, there are archive photos. I was so excited when I found his book. Of course, people who have to care for their families, have other priorities.
Being so busy, how do you find time for your private life?
It depends what a private life is. My conscious choice is an interesting work. I may want to change something later and have some other steps in my life. Just now, this way of life is the best for my needs. I worry more that my scientific data hasn’t almost been published yet. I have to finish what I have started and received scientific results. Because this is what determines a scientist, not travelling or interesting activity.
You know, I have a feeling as if I was born a biologist. When I was a child, I was a young naturalist in the Kyiv Zoo. There was a period when I was spending all my free time there. Liudmyla Kostikova, my Biology teacher at school was a scientist algologist (algology is a science about algae). She noticed my obsession with her subject, encouraged and helped me. I was a member of ecological communities, one of them was headed by an incredible teacher Hennadii Trufanov. We had real field trips in summer. I guess that everything started then… I was watching some birds which were at the partially damaged and flooded church in the middle of Kaniv Reservoir. That humble work took the first place at the National Junior Academy of Sciences…
Interview by Larysa Vyshenska
Photo provided by Oksana Savenko