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'I have found my calling'

Grade 12 Surrey student Shakti Ramkumar recently travelled to Antarctica.  - Photo submitted
Grade 12 Surrey student Shakti Ramkumar recently travelled to Antarctica.
— image credit: Photo submitted

For Kwantlen Park Secondary student Shakti Ramkumar, being environmentally active in Surrey was the impetus to wanting to see environmental stewardship firsthand throughout the world.

Having participated in numerous local and national school science fairs, Ramkumar had heard about an organization called Students on Ice, but it wasn’t until she saw poster in her school counselor’s office about a polar expedition to Antarctica that she took a keen interest.

Based in Ottawa, Students on Ice offers high school and university students from around the world unique education expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic to give them a new understanding and respect for the planet.

“I have been working on a lot of sustainability projects in school and I have an interest in science,” says Ramkumar. “We do invasive species removal in Kwantlen Park twice a week.”

Along with the school’s Eco Club Ramkumar started with a classmate, the Grade 12 student also leads the Surrey Youth Sustainability Network, a partnership with the City of Surrey that encourages students from across the city to work together on sustainable projects.

But it was a chance to travel to Antarctica that had her dreaming.

Shakti Ramkumar on iceRamkumar applied for a scholarship through the Leacross Foundation, a Canadian foundation with a goal of helping women and children access opportunities in business, health, the arts and education.

“I was one of five girls offered a scholarship,” she says. “It (Students on Ice) was $14,000, which is crazy money, there’s no way I could have gone without (the foundation’s) support.”

Following a flight to Toronto to meet up with the other 70 students invited on the trip, the group flew to Miami, then Buenos Aires, and finally to the small city of Ushuaia, on the tip of Argentina - the southernmost city in the world.

After boarding a ship by the same name, the students sailed the Drake passage on the Ushuaia, a 280-foot polar expedition and arctic tourism vessel.

The water was rough, with large swells, and many of the students were sea sick on the two day-trip until they crossed the Antarctic Convergence and into Antarctic waters. Then the group was able to take numerous Zodiac cruises, landing on Half Moon Island and Elephant Island.

“There were floating icebergs, exposed rock swarming with wildlife, penguins… it was a pretty dynamic place to see,” Ramkumar says.

“One of the things that struck me during the two-week trip wasn’t just the beautiful sights and the cute penguins, but how it all worked together. We saw the whole food chain, top to bottom – whales eating seals, seals eating penguins, whales chasing whales,” she says. “It really struck home in a way that it has never done before about how important it is to preserve it all.”Seal in Antarctica

The younger teens spent the evenings listening to expert speakers and watching some of the university students perform various experiments on board the ship, including harvesting phytoplankton – a microscopic plant-like organism vital to the marine food chain – and collecting ice core samples .

Now back in Surrey, Ramkumar is working on a presentation to help inspire youth and schools throughout the city.

“When you’re talking about saving the planet and sustainability, it’s not about policies or politicians, it’s about preserving the amazing wildlife, snow and ice, the food chain,” she says. “We often think a one-degree change in temperature is nothing, but for the oceans that’s huge, and seeing the wildlife and realizing they are the ones who will be affected by the change, it’s pretty amazing.”

Although she is planning on enrolling in UBC’s engineering program in the fall, visiting Antarctica has definitely changed her outlook on the environment,

“I would love to go back and participate in more of the experiments someday,” she says. “I think I have found my calling.”

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