This Antarctic Glacier is Gone, But It’s a Good Thing

The Royal Society Mountain Range in Victoria Land, Antarctica, where Matataua Glacier resides (Source: Pixabay).

Marchant Glacier in the Royal Society Range of Victoria Land, Antarctica, is no longer on the map, but in a break from the norm, climate change isn’t the culprit. Rather, the 7-mile-long glacier has been renamed Matataua Glacier after its former namesake, geologist David Marchant from Boston University, was found by the university to have sexually harassed at least one of his former graduate students and possibly several others.

Marchant was chosen to have the glacier named after him in 1994 in recognition of his field work in Antarctica since 1985. This included mapping the glacial history of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, as well as his discovery of evidence to document paleoclimate change in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

Boston University’s investigation of the harassment claims determined that Marchant engaged in both derogatory slurs and sexual comments that violated the university’s sexual harassment policy during a three-week Antarctic field research expedition in 1999-2000. The original complaint by his 22-year-old graduate student at the time, Jane Willenbring, was lodged in late 2016, as first reported by the magazine Science. The investigation into her allegations took a year to conduct. During that time several other complaints against Marchant were also lodged. However, university officials were not able to find enough evidence to support the additional allegations.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN), an agency of the U.S. Geological Survey, made the glacier’s name change official earlier this month after reviewing an anonymous proposal sent to the agency that suggested the action, as well as the new name. “Matataua” was chosen due to the glacier’s proximity to Matataua Peak, which is a 3,013-meter summit along the ridge that separates Matataua Glacier and Ferrigno Glacier. The name is a Māori word meaning “a scout before the troops.” The glacier was given its former name before the instance of sexual harassment occurred.

According to Science, the anonymous letter to the BGN pointed out the unsuitable working environment that was created for female graduate students by Marchant. His behavior eclipsed his claim of making “outstanding contributions to scientific knowledge” in Antarctica, which the board requires as a part of its naming criteria. “Geographic names get changed more often than people think,” Lou Yost, the executive secretary of the naming board, told The New York Times. “Not so much for these kind of reasons. But it’s an honor we want to take seriously.”

Resiliency

Jane Willenbring on field research in Antarctica in 2008. She was just 22 years old when Marchant sexually harassed her during their field expedition in 1999-2000 (Source: Jane Willenbring/Adam Lewis).

Willenbring is now an associate professor and geologist at SCRIPPS Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. She had focused her Ph.D. thesis on Antarctic research before changing to the Arctic after enduring the harassment from Marchant.

“At the time, I thought it would be a major career setback because I had been accepted at UC Berkeley to work on Antarctic glaciers and turned down that Ph.D. fellowship,” Willenbring told GlacierHub. However, she found that she “didn’t need the pedigree of UC Berkeley to succeed in science, and the breadth of multiple focus areas turned out to be useful in the end.” As the director of the Scripps Cosmogenic Isotope Laboratory (SCI-Lab), her research now aims to solve problems related to the Earth’s surface.

She has used her experience to help others by adapting the “Growing up In Science” conversation series for use at SCRIPPS. The series shares faculty members’ life stories and highlights the struggles and detours they faced, and how they overcame them. “At some point I decided I wanted to be who I needed when I was younger,” stated Willenbring.

Vulnerability

Willenbring filed the complaint 17 years after the harassment occurred, once she had a tenured position at SCRIPPS, and therefore would not run the risk of jeopardizing her career. With networks being marketed as especially crucial to professional success for STEM graduate students, the lack of career security in reporting is a large barrier.

However, behavior such as sexual harassment during scientific investigations is not only harmful for the victims but detrimental to science as well.

The red circle denotes the location of the Royal Society Range, where Matataua Glacier is located, as well as Beacon Valley, where Willenbring conducted her field research with Marchant (Source: NASA).

“Everyone thinks more clearly and creatively when not burdened with worries of discrimination or harassment as they try to do their work,” Jessica O’Reilly, an environmental anthropologist at Indiana University who studies the decision making of scientists, told GlacierHub.

“I think the extremely hierarchical nature of academic training overall makes junior researchers, especially women, vulnerable to inappropriate behavior or harassment, and not enough has been done to address this in academic settings, remote or not,” she continued. O’Reilly warned about the militaristic and masculinist legacy of Antarctic field camps that is sometimes unofficially perpetuated in field training in an article for Environmental Humanities last year.

Even with such a crucial task ahead, O’Reilly remains hopeful. “My sense is that things are going to continue to get better,” she said, “and this renaming of Matataua glacier​ and the recent AAAS decision is emblematic of this.”

Others agree that breaking away from this legacy of behavior in research settings is indeed what is needed. “A narrow, patrolled take on science limits our range of possible—and we live in a time when we need to really start re-imagining what is possible,” M Jackson, a National Geographic Explorer and glaciologist, told GlacierHub.

Jackson stresses the importance of creating environments that encourage a wide breadth of individuals to partake in science.“We need diverse individuals from across a range of genders, races, identities, economic statuses, geographies, etc. participating in science because of the unique and valuable perspectives they can bring to science,” she continued. “This enriches us all.”

Progress

The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently adopted a policy that allows fellows to be stripped of their honors if they are found to have engaged in sexual harassment, as well as any other violation of professional ethics. And it’s not the only organization to take firmer action after the recent #MeToo national reckoning with sexual assault and harassment.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) agreed that Marchant was found to have violated Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which is a federal law the prohibits federal funding to support any educational activity that discriminates against someone on the basis of sex. This led the NSF to cancel his funding, but only after some delay.

The NSF has since learned from its previous handling of the issue. It has published a new term and condition on September 21 regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault. It concludes that “awardee organizations will be required to notify NSF of any findings/determinations of sexual harassment, other forms of harassment, or sexual assault regarding an NSF-funded Principal Investigator (PI) or co-PI.”

This includes placing a PI or co-PI on administrative leave, which is where Marchant currently stands at Boston University while he continues to appeal the school’s recommended sanction of termination. The NSF rule will be in effect on October 21, after the conclusion of the public viewing period.

A statement from NSF Director France Córdova stated that this action is meant to support the U.S. research community, while also recognizing that “at times, the scientific community has not sufficiently protected all of its members.” This is a welcome change, as the lack of support has only been solidified by studies of sexual harassment in academia. A recent study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that current policies are woefully underperforming in protecting victims, driving talented researchers out of their fields.

Willenbring told GlacierHub she was unexpectedly pleased with the rule, and how far it goes in comparison to other scientific institution rules, such as the National Institutes of Health. “Reasonable next steps should be to protect anyone harassed—men too—and for NSF to perform investigations themselves given obvious, and now exacerbated, conflict of interest of university Title IX office investigations,” she stated.

In the future, Willenbring would like to see the NSF and universities work together to protect and secure student funding when they experience and report harassment. “I hope that they figure out how to remove PIs and co-PIs who are harassers who have current funding as well,” she continued. “I hope we won’t just wait one to four years for those grants to end naturally.”

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