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Glacial Expert Delivers Antarctic Science to Indiana Classrooms

Kathy Licht, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, School of Science

What some might envision as one of the coldest, starkest, loneliest places on earth is a scientific paradise to Kathy Licht, associate professor of geology at the School of Science at IUPUI.

Kathy Licht Associate Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, collecting samples in AntarcticaAssociate Professor Kathy Licht   collects sediment and rock samples in Antarctica.

Licht specializes in glacial geology and routinely travels to remote locations in Antarctica. On past research journeys, she has camped on massive ice sheets—a mere 150 miles from the South Pole—where the landscape is literally frozen in time yet brimming with exciting discoveries.

“The experience is hard to put into words. It’s really awe-inspiring and at first you can’t believe you’re actually there,” said Licht, who has taught in the Department of Earth Sciences since 2000. “It’s a tough place to survive, but it is full of beauty and all its subtlety is very rich.”

Her research is driven by the scientific importance of Antarctica, where she samples and analyzes sediment and rocks at the base of mammoth glacial systems. The nature and composition of these deposits allow scientists to measure how glacial sheets have traveled or changed, in some instances over a period of half a million years or more.

“By measuring the isotopes in minerals and rocks in a sediment field, you can determine how long they’ve been exposed on the ice sheet surface,” she said. “Climate change is very real, and with this comes a need to understand how quickly ice sheets have responded to this change, and how it is affecting sea levels.”

Beyond the challenges of daily life in such as a desolate location are the difficulties researchers have with securing funding to support scientific research in Antarctica. Licht last visited the area in 2010, but she is thankful she has the opportunity to relive her experiences each day in the classroom. She teaches an introductory Antarctic geology course at IUPUI.

Kathy Licht Associate Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, with student at IUPUI

“I love being able to bring my research into the classroom,” she said. “I try to help students understand how interesting and vast the world is. Memorizing a text book can’t compare to the experience of living the science each day.”

It can be difficult at times to help students appreciate glacial change in Antarctica, but she focuses on Indiana’s own glacial history. The difference is the ice sheet that once covered the local area is long gone. Her courses include regular field trips to glacial deposits, beaches and riverbeds to allow students to sample and analyze sediment.

“By relating my experiences, I help students understand that science is not always linear thinking,” Licht added.

When the Wisconsin native is not on campus or in the research field, she can be found gardening or bicycling.