Fifty years ago, Terry Tickhill Terrel was an undergraduate at The Ohio State University, majoring in chemistry, when she realized she didn’t want to spend her life in a laboratory.
Tickhill Terrel was paying her own way through school, and she needed a job while she thought about her career path. And so, one morning, she walked into Ohio State’s Institute of Polar Studies – now the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center – and announced that she would like a job in Antarctica.
“And they all just stared at me,” Tickhill Terrel remembers now. “Because women had never been allowed to go to Antarctica before.”
Tickhill Terrel was in luck, though. Lois Jones, a geochemist and professor at the Byrd Center, had recently gotten funding to lead the first all-female research team in Antarctica. Competition for the team was fierce, but when Tickhill Terrel sat down in Jones’ office, she made her case. And the next morning, Jones called and offered her the job.
By October 1969, Tickhill Terrel was on a plane bound for snow school in New Zealand with three other women: Jones, the leader of the group; Kay L. Lindsay, an entomologist; and Eileen McSaveney, a geologist.
Tickhill Terrel was back on campus this week for the Byrd Center’s Women in Antarctica Symposium – a two-day event that celebrates women in polar research and considers the future of women in science.
Jones died in 2000; Lindsay in 2001. McSaveney, the fourth member of the group, is also speaking at the symposium this week, along with 23 other female scientists from both Ohio State and around the world, including Ellen Mosley-Thompson, distinguished university professor in Ohio State’s Department of Geography.
“A lot of press people were around, and there were headlines about how we were invading the last bastion of male supremacy on Earth,” Tickhill Terrel says now with a chuckle. “But we were really trying to show that women were not defective men. And I think we proved that women could certainly stand the rigors of Antarctica.”
From October 1969 to mid-February 1970, they collected rock samples from Antarctica’s Taylor Valley – a place NASA calls “one of the most remote and geologically exotic places on the planet.” They explored the Wright Valley, another dry valley in Antarctica, and slept in tents for months. They reached the South Pole – becoming the first female scientists to do so – where temperatures dropped to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tickhill Terrel hauled rocks from the valleys to their camps. She chopped ice for water. She broke rocks for analysis. It was grueling work, but she loved it.
“When I was in Antarctica, I had been searching around for what I wanted to do,” she says. “And I realized that it didn’t matter what I did, but that it needed to be research. I really loved research.”
The months in Antarctica changed her – she returned to Columbus just as college campuses around the country, including Ohio State, were erupting in protests and riots over the Vietnam War. Tickhill Terrel decided to pursue a degree in botany, and moved into an apartment on Neil Avenue with a few friends.
“When I got back, people didn’t treat me differently, but I was a different person,” she says. “My time in Antarctica was pure joy, from the moment I got up in the morning until the moment I fell in bed each night.”
She never returned to Antarctica, but she did devote her life to research: Tickhill Terrel went on to earn a PhD in ecology from the University of Georgia, to teach at the University of Wyoming, and to lead research efforts in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Even now in retirement, she said, she is a researcher, studying the history of textiles and quilting, and publishing her findings in peer-reviewed journals.
And though there still is not gender equity in funding and opportunities for scientific research, that first all-female team broke through a barrier for women in science, setting the stage for future students and researchers to visit remote areas of the planet and ask their own questions.
A group of Ohio State students are planning a research trip to Antarctica this winter, during Antarctica’s summer, and around half of the students are women. Tickhill Terrel had advice for them: “Pack your sense of awe,” she said. “It is an awesome place – take time to stand and take in the awe of it, take it into the core of your being. It is an experience I’ve never forgotten.”