Meet the UCL student who’s about to take on Antartica in the fight against climate change

She’s going on an expedition with polar explorers to investigate the impact of global warming on the region

Elena Priesen-Reis is a third-year physics student at UCL who’s about to go exploring Antartica to help fight climate change. She’s headed off in November with 2041 ClimateForce to study the impacts of climate change in the polar region first hand.

She first found the opportunity through UCL’s Climate Action Society and is now going to have the opportunity to work with famous polar explorers Robin Swan, OBE, and Barney Swan.

The expedition will take Elena to both Argentina and Antarctica with the aim to equip  “leaders with the resources and actionable solutions to become a part of a global force of change”.

Photo of Elena

The Tab spoke to Elena about her passion for fighting Climate Change and going to Antartica:

Why did you choose to apply for the Expedition?

As the issues around climate continue to be neglected, I feel a strong passion for revolutionary products with increasing efficiency and a lower reliance on non-renewable energy sources.

Inspired by professors, notorious worldwide researchers, and [UCL’s] revolutionary research, I developed a deep desire to assist in technological innovation and material exploration, to accelerate the generation of sustainable technology.

I [also] recognise that effective climate action [is] achieved through the integration and support of the public. My aim is to be part of a bridge that connects the public and scientific communities.

I also believe that my studies provide me with the distinctive ability to aid the expedition [by] using my comprehensive technical skills and knowledge of topics closely relevant to the sustainability and climate aspect of this expedition, such as the dynamics of several climate systems, renewable energy, and the unique characteristics and structure of materials.

How did you feel when you found out you were chosen to become part of the expedition?

I was absolutely elated. Up until that moment I made every effort to engage and combat the climate crisis from my desk. However, I still felt somewhat disconnected and insignificant when I thought about Antarctica, a continent on the other side of the globe. Being accepted to be a part of this expedition has fanned the flames of my passion and drive for this cause. I anticipate the day where I will be able to personally witness the immensity yet simultaneous fragility and vulnerability of the continent, finally gaining true appreciation for the severity of the situation.

Tell us a bit more about the expedition itself and what it will consist of

The trip is expected to have approximately 100 participants from over 30 countries. Due to the short timeframe of the trip, the itinerary is quite intense. Upon arrival in Ushuaia, Argentina, we will be greeted and given a program overview. The following day the expedition leaders and explorers will carry out preparations for our departure through the Beagle Channel.

We’ll travel South towards Antarctica and journey through the Drake Passage, following the footsteps of history’s greatest explorers! We’ll then journey to Crystal Sound, Fish Islands, Prospect Point (where we’ll get our first glimpse of Antarctica), iceberg graveyard, and Vernadsky Research Base. We will disembark throughout the journey, hiking around Neko Harbor, visiting Meditation Rock and watching for Minke whales.

The final location, and the place that I’m most looking forward to seeing, is Deception Island. By travelling through a small channel called Neptune’s Bellows, I’ll witness and contemplate the relics of what was once the whaling industry, experience volcanic activity (which actually makes the water warm enough to jump into!), and visit the Aitcho Islands.

As we head home we will reflect on the expedition and, through the trip leaders’ facilitation, we will together develop ideas for possible solutions to the climate problems that we face. The crew will also provide information to aid us in the fight against climate change and how we can become effective ambassadors for change.

Two photos of Elena in Uganda

Elena worked with a charity in Uganda

Is there any preparation/fundraising that you need to do before the expedition?

Not surprisingly, due to the remoteness of the location, airfare, as well as gear required to withstand such extreme temperatures, my estimated cost for the expedition is £14,000 (£700 for equipment and insurance, £1,000 for airfare, £12,300 for the expedition base fee), for which I am currently fundraising.

My fundraising campaign will consist of a mixture of crowdfunding and corporate sponsorship. I am doing everything that I can to keep the campaign’s momentum – currently, a parody music video has been released, you can check it out here.

I have also set up a gofundme page where I can keep track of my progress and thank those who support me.

Lastly, do you have any advice for anyone looking to explore climate as a career option?

First of all, I applaud you and your recognition of the severity of our current global situation. I would suggest starting small and gaining confidence in your climate action at first; reach out to your local council’s sustainability and climate department, or organisations/charities working in your area.

UCL in recent times has acknowledged their responsibility as a role model for sustainability and environmental consciousness. As a result, UCL Sustainability as well as many departments have dedicated themselves to carrying out various activities and providing opportunities. There are also societies (e.g. UCL Climate Action Society) that are eager and enthusiastic to make change.

Seize every resource and opportunity you can find, no matter how small, and slowly but surely you’ll meet others and create connections that can open up career pathways.