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The Range

Frigid Ambitions: Why a Kansas doctor is headed to the South Pole

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John-Michael Watson says he has visited more than 40 countries. He made this trip to Bolivia in 2019.

A Wichita doctor is headed to the South Pole … and he’s taking his unicycle.

When he was a kid growing up in rural McPherson County, John-Michael Watson said he started reading National Geographic and dreaming of adventure.

He particularly remembers the March 1996 issue that featured two emperor penguins and their baby on the cover.

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It was this March 1996 edition of National Geographic that John-Michael Watson says made him think about going to Antarctica one day.

"It was just kind of a great edition, and I remember seeing in Antarctica the red puffy jackets with the logos," Watson said, referring to the parkas scientists and others wore. "As a kid, I had absolutely no idea how someone would get to go to Antarctica, but had just been fascinated by such a foreign-looking place. And so from a young age, I thought that it would be a really cool place to go."

Now he's going. Next month, he's scheduled to fly to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a research facility run by the National Science Foundation.

Watson, a physician, will spend nearly a year there taking care of roughly 50 scientists and staff members. The station is involved in a number of scientific endeavors, including astronomy and atmospheric research.

"I'm just very excited to meet the people that are there, to learn from them," Watson said. "I think the other members of the team are from such diverse backgrounds and have such diverse training that I just can't wait to learn from them and really to just be a member of the team."

Antarctica is home to perhaps the world's most hostile environment. Temperatures can plummet to 50 or 60 degrees below zero. The South Pole also is nearly two miles above sea level, making even simple tasks exhausting.

When Watson arrives in February, it will remain dark until October. The staff will be isolated for those nine months because harsh conditions make reaching the station virtually impossible.

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John-Michael Watson says he first saw the red parkas scientists wear on the South Pole while reading National Geographic as a kid growing up near McPherson. He was issued his own parka and other cold-weather gear as he prepares to depart to Antarctica.

"It's easier to get someone back from the International Space Station than to get someone out of the South Pole in winter," he said. "So once you're there, you're just there."

For those who know him, the 36-year-old Watson's trip to Antarctica is not unusual. After all, he's studied archeology in Israel, been on medical missions to Papua New Guinea and climbed mountains in Nepal.

By his account, he's visited about 40 countries. Not that he doesn't appreciate his home state.

"I always tell people that coming from Kansas, there's a real beauty to the prairies and the Flint Hills, and just kind of the transition of the landscapes and sunset, sunrise. I think there's just such a beauty to that.

"But also then when you see a tree or a mountain or an ocean somewhere else, you kind of get pretty excited."

Richard Watson, John-Michael's older brother, said he was not surprised when his younger brother told him he was going to the South Pole.

"It very much fit within his personality and sounded like a cool opportunity when he was looking around at doing different things," he said. "He's always been somebody that's been interested in going to interesting places and exploring new places."

Growing up, Richard Watson said his brother was always collecting rocks and animals, part of his insatiable enthusiasm to learn about things.

"I think our parents encouraged us to go and explore," said Richard, a biomedical engineer for NASA. "We got to spend time with our family and spend time outside growing up in a small town and just being exposed I think to nature helped foster that curiosity."

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John-Michael Watson did a clinical research project in Papua New Guinea in 2010 while a first year medical student at the University of Kansas.

He remembers playing a game with his brother while growing up north of McPherson.

"We had this little kind of hill with a little pond, and we lived out in the country," Richard Watson said.

"We would play and see how many snakes we could catch in a single day. … Doing those types of things together were very typical for us."

A magazine article about people who go to the South Pole noted that in addition to having a sense of adventure, they can be a bit eccentric.

Watson admits to having a "kooky side," like riding his unicycle.

Turns out, though, that the manager of the research station also rides a unicycle, as do several other people there. They plan to form a club when Watson arrives.

"I'm very curious, and I'll try anything with regard to that," Watson said. "And I just love to do something new and something that's uncomfortable and that kind of puts me outside of my prior experiences."