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Prominent Goans – Dr Savita Kerkar and her tryst with an Arctic Expedition

Dr. Savita Kerkar engraved her name on the list of prominent Goans by becoming the first Indian woman to represent India on the Third Indian Arctic Expedition as a Research Scientist in 2009.

Her journey to the North Pole began after one of her students coaxed her into applying for an interview to carry out research in the Arctic circle. Dr. Savita Kerkar picked the topic ‘the effect of global warming on marine (sulphur reducing) bacteria’. A fortnight later, she had tickets in hand.

Dr. Savita Kerkar, one of those special prominent Goans, holds her first Master of Science in Microbiology from Bombay University and the second in Marine Biotechnology from Goa University. She also earned a Ph.D. in Marine Sciences from Goa University where she now heads the Biotechnology department.

While recounting her journey to her base at Ny-Ålesund on the archipelago of Svalbard, Dr. Savita Kerkar says she wanted to make the most of her trip to the Arctic and explore and learn as much as she could.

The June 14th to July 18th, 2009 expedition began with a flight from Goa to Ny-Ålesund in Norway, via –Mumbai, Frankfurt, Oslo and Longyearbyen.

“We had a layover at Oslo and while my male colleagues were typical conservative Indian men, I was hell-bent on exploring as much as I could. I bought a train ticket and went all over the city taking in the sights and sounds,” recounts Dr. Savita Kerkar.

Being the only woman in a seven-member team, no one was willing to talk to her at first, but the ice broke over time. It may have also been due to Dr. Kerkar’s not so subtle warning – “We need to live like a family for the next month.”

The prominent Goans’ journey to the Pole

The Indian contingent’s flight to Ny-Ålesund was delayed because the propeller had frozen. The team used the opportunity to purchase some supplies from a local supermarket.

“Once the problem was fixed, we boarded our 10-seater flight which was being captained by a lady pilot. However, the problem with the propeller recurred. Instead of panicking, the lady pilot jumped out of the aircraft and pushed the propeller till it began turning freely. She then hopped back into the plane and we took off,” narrates Dr. Savita, while chuckling about the petrifying experience.

In the land of the midnight sun

The Indian team was greeted with festive cheer upon their landing in Ny- Ålesund as it was bright and sunny. “We joked that we brought the Indian sun with us. But just 30 minutes later, there was heavy snowfall, followed by rain and then hail,” says Dr Kerkar.

The Indian station at the Arctic goes by the name ‘Himandi’, and is posh, unlike other country’s stations. It has four bedrooms with twin beds, four bathrooms and several other luxuries. Despite the comforts, at night, sleeping was difficult as it was perpetually bright. During the day, the team had to wear UV goggles due to the harsh rays. That ensures protection for the eyes.

“Our team was led by a very strict and senior scientist. He didn’t want me to mingle with the rest of the researchers from other countries. I, however, wanted to explore as much as I could. I sneaked into all the other country’s stations and made friends with everyone,” Dr Savita recalls.

Unsure of whether they were eating vegetarian food or not, the team soon began missing Indian food. Unwilling to let her team’s morale drop, Dr Kerkar used a PVC pipe from one of the research instruments and made parathas and ‘pulao’ (rice cooked with fat, onion and spices) for them, with a couple of spices they had carried.

After completing her project, Dr Savita Kerkar collected samples of reindeer dung and arctic mushrooms. “I brought these back with me to Goa so that my colleagues at Goa University could study and experiment on them,” she says.

With interviews for the 2017 edition of the expedition to begin shortly, Dr Savita Kerkar advises all people interested in research… “Give it a shot!”

Photo caption: Dr Savita Kerkar and members of the Third Indian Arctic Expedition near a bust of Roald Amundsen – a Norwegian explorer of polar regions and the first man to reach the South Pole. 

(Pic credit: Dr Savita Kerkar)

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