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The Explorer Returns: A Kansas doctor journeys back from the South Pole

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Courtesy photo
A satellite communications dome at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station under the glow of the aurora australis, or southern lights.

Dr. John-Michael Watson stopped by KMUW studios to talk about his time in Antarctica, why he’s going back there next fall and what it was like to watch the sun come up after living in total darkness for more than six months.

After spending nearly a year at perhaps the most remote place on earth, Dr. John-Michael Watson can't wait to go back.

Watson returned to Kansas last month after working as a physician at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. In September, he's headed to another National Science Foundation research station there.

During his time off, he visited family in the McPherson area, traveled to Kansas City to see the Country Club Plaza lights, "and got barbecue, of course," he said.

Watson is currently cave diving in Mexico and hopes to go mountain climbing in Nepal and Africa before returning to Antarctica in the fall.

He stopped by the KMUW studios to talk with Tom Shine and The Range about his time in Antarctica, why he's going back, and what it was like to watch the sun come up after living in total darkness for more than six months

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

John-Michael Watson: It's not like anything else, Tom. It's hard to describe the duration of time that it takes to get to a level where the sunrise is just this new experience. Like, you're a baby; you've not seen anything.

When that sun first starts to peak above the horizon, it's kind of a unique thing because things that would usually take minutes can last days. And so you definitely appreciate some of the colors that you don't typically appreciate; a lot of pink pastels that maybe it was just I hadn't seen them in forever. But you just find yourself standing in front of the windows just staring; there's nothing going on, but you're just looking at the light for the first time.

Tom Shine: What did you learn about yourself during your time there?

So many things. I definitely am a person who in general enjoys the quiet and do not mind solitude, but this was sort of on a different level. So I've never been left alone with my thoughts for quite that long.

But I definitely think more than anything, I just learned to value sort of a very slow pace and being present in the moment.

We're so distracted by so many things, whether it's on our phones or all the classic distractions that we have now. But there really is not a lot of that available to you (at the South Pole). So by force, you kind of are just present a lot of the time. And I think for me, that was something that I really hope that I can be as I'm coming back to Kansas and anywhere else.

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Courtesy photo
Sunrise last September at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. After months of total darkness, the sun slowly rises over a period of weeks.

What part of adapting to life at the South Pole was surprisingly difficult for you?

Definitely the … disconnection from a lot of family and friends. I think that's probably pretty predictable, but for me, I definitely value all of those relationships.

We only had internet several hours a day at the South Pole, so it's not like you can just pick up the phone and call your parents or your best friends whenever you want. So that was definitely a huge adjustment.

You told me that you hoped you might be able to get to do some research as well. Did you get to do any research?

We had a really cool project that the National Science Foundation, University of Texas Medical Branch and Harvard teamed up together, and NASA funded. A study on virtual reality at the South Pole.

Antarctica, and specifically winter-over crews like the South Pole winter-over crew, represent a very good analog for long-duration space flight. The confined environment, the small teams, the very remote setting and limited resources altogether mean that the people who have been selected for that and the entire environment are a good analog.

So we were basically taking virtual reality and we exposed participants in the study to various nature and urban scenes. And at the time we did it, … some of those folks had not seen a tree or a dog or a car for over a year at that point. So it was pretty exciting to get to work on that project and be a part of something that maybe someday we'll see up in space.

Would you like to explore space?

I mean, I would not turn down a ticket to space, Tom. I don't know that we're really there as a society where we're all gonna get to go to space yet, but I think as far away as I can get to explore something, I'm game. And, yeah, there's a lot of earth that's still pretty interesting to me.

So you're going back. Why are you going back?

I still, even after having been there for a year, am just fascinated by the place of Antarctica. I think Palmer Station specifically represents probably in my mind when I was a kid what I thought Antarctica might be like. I still haven't been there, but that's what the pictures look like, so I'm fascinated to be at a different station, see some different things and just stay in the program.

Honestly, I had such a rich experience, and the communities and relationships that were formed are kind of unlike anything else. And, so for me, it's sort of a combination of both this work-science mix, but also just kind of like being at camp or something like that, right?

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Courtesy photo
Dr. John-Michael Watson works on his unicycling last year at a research station at the South Pole. The station has an active unicycling club.

Let's talk about your return trip. … Where are you going?

So I'll be headed to a station called Palmer Station, which is on the opposite side of the continent. So it's sort of … if you talked about being in New York versus San Francisco, it's that far of a distance.

Palmer is actually above the Antarctic circle. So they don't really have any long periods of night. You get sunrise, sunset. It's still pretty cold – below zero a lot of the times – but in the summer, which is when I'll be going, is when a lot of the animal biology is happening. And so that's the focus of that station. It's penguins and whales and seals, and there's glaciology with a lot of icebergs. There's ships that come in every month throughout the seasons to resupply. There's even tourists that may have the resources to drive their boat down to the station.

So it's a very sort of vibrant location, particularly in the animal biology domain.

Is there still some place in the world you're still interested in exploring?

Absolutely. I would say the list gets longer, not shorter.

What's on your list?

So, this is just a random one that came to my mind, but I think Tunisia sounds like an interesting place. Sort of a Northern Africa vibe that I've never experienced. There's certainly a large portion of Asia I've never visited.

While a small world, there's still a lot to see.

What would you say to a kid from McPherson County who might hear you and think, 'Wow, he's just a guy from McPherson County; he's been all over the world.' What would you tell them about exploring and what's possible in their lives?

I think just do the things that sound interesting and exciting to you. I think really books and anything that would spark my imagination as a kid were incredibly valuable. And then being able to see a path to that also I think was very important.

When you talk about all the explorers that Kansas has seen … whether it is people like astronauts or in aviation. I don't know what it is, but there's something special about growing up out on the prairies of Kansas and sort of having space to dream. And I definitely feel like I was a beneficiary of that.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, serving as small station representative, a volunteer coach for League 42 and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.