Polar explorer Prem Gill has a problem with the Antarctic. Specifically, the sorts of people usually considered explorers: White men. Middle Aged. Frosted beards.
Gill knows the damage this lack of diversity can cause. People from disadvantaged backgrounds stop dreaming of making it to positions of influence. Those who do ‘make it’ end up isolated, lonely and over-burdened.
And, most importantly, “shocking” levels of inequality across wider society remain unchallenged—when applying for jobs, trying to rent a house, or even work effectively as an academic.
So, he’s decided to shake things up. Gill is behind ambitious plans to diversify polar exploration—plans that include seals, space noises, grime music and virtual reality.
A Cambridge Conservationist
Prem Gill studied an undergraduate degree in earth science and marine biology at Cardiff University. He went straight into a PhD on polar wildlife at Cambridge University, with a particular focus on monitoring wildlife from space. Some of his research, tracking penguin poo through satellite images, was featured in the BBC Earth From Space series.
In an interview with radio station CamFM, Gill says that while it’s not just ‘Western’ countries doing polar science anymore, the field remains relatively un-diverse. He says it is because people “follow what they see.”
This came up in his own life. He said he met lots of Sikhs that were surprised by his degree choice over something like dentistry or law—“typical” career paths “which you hope you can support your parents with.”
You can now find my face on the shelf of your local Waterstones within the National Geographic Kids magazine! *faints with disbelief* pic.twitter.com/EkDkn2fRvy
— Prem Gill (@PolarPrem) November 18, 2019
“Now I’m the Sikh guy who is studying seals from space and in Antarctica, and I’m a myth in the community. They’re like, is there really a Sikh guy doing that? I’m kind of like a brown unicorn at the moment.”
Enter Polar Impact, a network for ethnic minorities working in Polar Research. Gill set up the initiative in mid 2019 to connect scientists from minority ethnic backgrounds, provide a platform for support and simply share people’s stories.
“As you know, academia and PhD can be a lonely world,” Gill said in the CamFM interview. “If you study the antarctic regions or the polar regions, it can be more lonely. If you’re someone who is visibly different from everyone else, it can be even more lonely.
“I want to change the image of what an Antarctic Explorer is. I’m a young guy with brown skin and I might not be the first person that pops into your mind when you think of polar explorer. But that’s what I am. I am a conservationist. I study the polar regions.”
Grime, deep space noises and job offers
Polar Impact has been supported by the UK’s Foreign Office, which set up a diversity in polar science initiative to analyse how to take down barriers for people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. The programme will be run in partnership with Polar Impact and the British Antarctic Survey.
In addition, Gill is running a scheme to help young BAME students work alongside him and calling for the creation of a shadowing scheme for people to spend a week with polar scientists.
Twitterverse – Looking British polar researchers from ethnic minority backgrounds that have worked or are due to work in the Arctic for a series. If you know any, let us know! @MinoritySTEM @SCAR_Tweets @BAS_News @WomeninPolarSci @PridePolar @foreignoffice @wwf_uk @scottpolar
— Minorities in Polar Research (@PolarImpact) November 4, 2019
But, his most mind-blowing plan involves reaching young people not yet at university.
“In Antarctica, we have these low-frequency radio receivers which picks up outer space noises and what I stumbled on is that the noises emitted by the southern lights is the same noises made by the Antarctic seals,” he said in the CamFM interview.
Gill showed these off at a lecture, and an audience member said it would be fun to make techno music with the sounds.
“I thought to myself, why don’t we go for grime? A lot of the people we’re trying to attract from say disadvantaged schools and urban areas that are not exposed to conservation– they’re pretty big grimeheads as well a lot of the time.”
Prem Gill has turned the idea over in his head, and his plan is now to make use of Cambridge University’s strong links to VR startups and local schools. He wants to work with school kids to make a grime song which would feed into a 3D, virtual reality experience that tells the plight of Antarctic seals and the face of polar science today — “which isn’t what we imagined it to be 100 years ago.”
The academic wants to ultimately show the track to grime’s most well known artist, Stormzy. Stormzy is well known at Cambridge University: He famously set up a scholarship programme to help people from a BAME background study at the institution.
It may be early days, but Gill’s efforts for change have received widespread support on and offline. He’s been profiled by the National Geographic in an interview with the tagline: “I want to change the image of Antarctic Explorers!”
Twitter user Alice Kalkuhl said the network “sounds amazing,” adding the humorous take that the first thing that comes to mind “is Dora the Explorer in winter clothes.”
This is fantastic to see! Let’s relegate the frozen bearded sepia faces to the past to make room for the future for #polarresearch.
— Hanne Nielsen (@WideWhiteStage) August 19, 2019
Another user, Hanne Nielsen, wrote the project was “fantastic to see.” “Let’s relegate the frozen bearded sepia faces to the past to make room for the future for #polarresearch.”
Looking forward, Gill advises people to talk to anyone from a minority ethnic background in their teams and offer to “lighten the load” by helping to diversify the field. “A common theme is if you are an ethnic minority and decide that you want to make a change and open up opportunities for typically disadvantaged groups to enter the field, there are cases where the burden will fall on that one person to do this.”
Here’s to a diverse cohort of polar explorers in the near future!
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