Rock On

By Jessica Kowal '89 / January / February 2006
April 21st, 2007
Erin Pettit spent last Thanksgiving at the bottom of the world: in Antarctica. Eight thousand miles from her Seattle home, she spent a summer month (according to the Antarctic calendar) sleeping in a pup tent deep in the Taylor Valley and studying the retreat and advance of glaciers. I wanted to talk to Pettit about another of her adventures: Girls on Ice, the wilderness-science program she launched to motivate high school girls to study science. But I just had to ask: what's it like in Antarctica?

"These big glaciers come down out of the mountains onto the valley floor. It's particularly beautiful - fantastic topography,"she said when we talked last fall. "It still blows zero here, but it's getting up to around freezing. There's around-the-clock sun, which keeps your tent warm when you're sleeping."

Pettit, 34, a former mechanical-engineering concentrator and a Univ. of Washington PhD in geophysics, was on her fifth trip to Antarctica. She uses ice-penetrating radar to map the rock landscape underlying a massive glacier that features a 130-foot-high ice cliff. Because the glacier's meltwater supports algae and microscopic worms even in this extreme environment, scientists think that studying the glacier's seasonal changes might provide insights into the likelihood of life on Mars.

Although Pettit and four colleagues were camping on rocky sediment near the glacier and cooking their out-of-date canned foods and frozen vegetables on a camping stove, they had one big advantage over earlier generations of explorers: the place is wired. Although phone service is spotty, Wi-Fi connects the entire valley to the Internet.

Just as Pettit finds inspiration in Antarctic glaciers, her Girls on Ice program encourages young women to learn about scientific study by taking them on a weeklong backcountry trip to examine glaciers in the North Cascade mountains. Although the trip was originally offered in 1999 to both genders, the eight people who signed up were all girls. The all-female karma clicked.

Without boys around, Pettit realized, young women fret less about skipping showers and leap more confidently into intellectual discussion. Pettit led other Girls groups from 2000 to 2003.

"We teach them to make observations about the evolution of the alpine landscape, alpine geology, glaciology, and ecology," Pettit said. "We try hard to get the students to figure out what's interesting to them and to design their own experiments."

One Girls on Ice student later studied mechanical engineering in college and spent a recent summer on an Alaskan ice field. Another worked on a marine-biology project in Africa.

"Our culture has a tendency to subtly tell girls that they shouldn't be interested in math and science," Pettit said. But "if you present things to girls in a certain way, they're totally fascinated."

Thanks to new funding from the North Cascades Institute, Pettit will lead another Girls on Ice trip this summer. Female high school students from ages 16 through 18 can apply by e-mailing Pettit at

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January / February 2006