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Tahoe grad’s internship lands her at the bottom of the Earth

Susan Wood
Dondra Biller is seen here rinsing a pump filter. (Photos provided to the Tahoe Daily Tribune)
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South Tahoe High School graduate Dondra Biller’s journey of a lifetime since leaving her hometown wasn’t necessarily her move three years ago to UC San Diego to major in geochemistry.

It was the trip on a boat from Punta Arenas, Chile, to the tip of Antarctica that captured the essence of the 19-year-old woman, the daughter of longtime resident Rosemary Manning.

Biller received a six-week internship through the Scripps Institute and National Science Foundation on the Nathaniel B. Palmer, a 300-foot research vessel dedicated to studying ocean currents. She returned to college a month ago.



The mission, centered 150 miles from the Antarctica peninsula near King George Island, was geared toward exploring the impact of iron on phytoplankton.

Biller’s duties involved studying the radioactive isotopes of radium and thorium. She said the most memorable part of the trip was hiking on the backyard glacier at the at the U.S. Antarctica Science Program’s Palmer Station.



“I was really nervous and really excited. I thought I’d be seasick all the time,” she said.

Instead, she was a trouper, following through with her duties amid cold, dry, snowy conditions. Biller fit right in.

“It really wasn’t that much colder than winter in Tahoe. And it’s so windy. Take the wind at the top of Heavenly and add a few knots to it,” she said.

When Manning first heard where her daughter was going, her reaction was that of a typical mother.

“It’s just this white mass,” Manning recalled saying to Dondra.

Antarctica has become the hotbed of scientific and recreational activity over the 14.2 million square miles at the Earth’s southernmost point.

Crossing it has been the quest of many adventurers. Some have toted 85-pound sleds, covering 15 miles a day over a sprawling white landscape.

To scientists, Antarctica is a place to see symptoms of global warming – the trapping of CO2 gases due to increasing emissions. The notion is mean temperatures will rise by 2- to 7 degrees by the end of the next century, creating what’s thought to be meteorological mischief and an unprecedented ice shelf meltdown that will substantially raise the sea level.

Some climatologists are in a hyper state of alert over what they’re seeing in the polar regions of the world. The area will be the focus next February for the International Polar Year, a national event co-organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The ice shelves are breaking off Antarctica. One broke off that’s the size of Rhode Island,” said John Kermond, chief climatologist of NOAA, which will host Biller on another upcoming internship.

Kermond, who often visits Tahoe during the annual Sierra Storm weather conferences, said scientists like those Biller worked with have become diligent at searching for clues to our planet’s environment and its sustainability. As for Biller’s research expedition, Kermond explained studying the phytoplankton represents the bottom of the food chain, and iron gets the plant into bloom.

“This is an essential component to our work,” he said.


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