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Gwenhael de Wasseige, PhD student in Physics: "Science in extreme conditions. Fantastic!"

As a child she wanted to become an astronaut. On December 17th Gwenhaël de Wasseige will travel to Antarctica, almost as far away as space. The PhD student in Physics will install a sensor on the South Pole to measure the thickness of the snow blanket. ‘I love science and adventure!’


Text: Femke Coopmans
Pictures: Johan Martens


Gwenhaël De Wasseige will set sail for the IceCube Neutrino Detector, a telescope existing of 1 cubic kilometre of Antarctic ice. Just above IceCube, at the ice surface, is the IceTop detector that registers cosmic radiation. On top of that is the inevitable and perennial layer of snow. Gwenhaël De Wasseige invented a system to measure how thick the snow layer is, in real time and remotely, so that researchers can adjust their recorded results minutely. 48 institutions worldwide participate in IceCube, including VUB and ULB.


So how about snow on the South Pole?

Gwenhaël: ‘There is no real snowfall, but the wind blows and moves the snow around continuously. That means that the layer of snow on top of IceCube varies in thickness from one day to the other, influencing the signal that the IceTop detector receives. So it becomes extremely important to know exactly how much snow there is before each measurement. Currently that is done the old fashioned way: someone goes outside to gauge the snow depth with a stick. I developed a way whereby the snow can be automatically assessed through sound sensors. Each sensor sends out a signal up to the snow surface and based on the speed of sound the thickness of the snow layer can be computed.’

Gwenhael de Wasseige developed a way whereby the snow can be automatically assessed through sound sensors.

How long did you work on the sensor?

Gwenhaël: ‘It wasn’t just me who worked on it - the lion share was done by partners in industry - and I haven’t been working on the sensor exclusively. Within the Physics department I am part of the Elementary Particle Physics research group and my PhD dissertation deals with a completely different topic… But I wanted to go to the South Pole, I knew about the constantly evolving snow layers and I had an idea. That was about a year ago. In the meantime there followed a lot of research, development work, testing… I will install one set-up for a trial period of one year. If the system works, then it can be expanded to the full square kilometre, 86 sensors in total. Or even two times 86, depending on what is needed and possible within the budget.


Curious yet?

So you really want to go to the South Pole?

Gwenhaël: ‘As a child I really wanted to go to space. I have always been intrigued by the stars. My mother is a science teacher and I clearly inherited her curiosity. It was she who stimulated me to reflect on things. Why do events happen the way they do? To me being a scientist is not a job, it is a way of life. And in Antarctica that becomes science in extreme conditions. Fantastic! Furthermore I’ll be working at the IceCube detector which gathers data to study the universe. More still, I will be allowed to install a set-up that I developed myself. This year only five other PhD students will get that honour. Worldwide!’

To me being a scientist is not a job, it is a way of life
Gwenhaël de Wasseige

Will all six of you work on your own projects?

Gwenhaël: ‘No, usually they will work on updates to the detector as part of the global project. Only a German colleague will work on a special project at the same time as me, a small telescope developed by one of his colleagues.’


How long will you stay at the South Pole?

Gwenhaël: ‘4 weeks. From December 17th to January 11th. At least that is the estimate at the moment, since you never know when exactly you will arrive or leave. That depends on the weather conditions. There might a few days’ leeway in either direction. The only thing you know, is that you are going.


Exciting. Are you well prepared?

Gwenhaël: ‘I have only recently started to realise it: I am actually going! Work has been so crazy in the past few months that I hardly had time to ponder my departure. I knew I was selected to go in May. After that I got the medical requirements and had to visit a doctor for a blood test, go to the dentist… The results are currently being analysed by the medical center in Texas, but all should be in order. I had to send them my measurements for my South Pole kit. And off course most of the work was scientific preparations and development of the sensor. But I also set up a number of activities for a broader audience. To me it is very important to include the general public in my story, to involve them and arouse their curiosity.’

I want to involve the general public in my story and arouse their curiosity
Gwenhaël de Wasseige

A little bit of magic

Is that your thing, making people curious?

Gwenhaël: ‘Oh yes! The stereotype is that scientists are people who live in a world of their own. Wrong! I am like everybody else. I think. And I am convinced that anybody can get involved with science.

Gwenhael de Wasseige: "I am convinced that anybody can get involved with science."

That is why we launched three initiatives for different target groups. The first is an experiments contest in which we challenge students in primary and secondary schools to think of an experiment that might have a different outcome on Antarctica as opposed to here. We were able to put together an international jury including none other than Francis Halzen, Belgian professor at the University of Wisconsin and the driving force behind IceCube.


Secondly, we encourage people to send us a postcard. A postage stamp from the South Pole is unique. That alone should entice you to do it. But we mostly want to get people excited: a postcard to the South Pole? To who? What are they doing there?


And the third project is a social media exhibition in which I try to motivate followers by posting a close-up shot of something one day and a wider shot and an explanation the next day.

What is the magic of physics to you?

Gwenhaël: ‘When I’m working on physics, I just feel good. I focus, try to understand something and in that moment I am not engaged with anything else. Maybe that is where the magic is… But it is also about that feeling after an intensive research period when you find the solution and you know you’re the first one. Of course, that doesn’t happen often, because it involves a lot of study and research. You start with the basics, learn things that others have already figured out. But at one point you see something new. Something that no one has ever seen before. And the longer you are involved with science, the more often it can happen. After that it is up to you to find the right words to communicate that solution. Magnificent!’

At one point you see something new. Something that no one has ever seen before. Magnificent!
Gwenhaël de Wasseige

And after the South Pole… space?

Gwenhaël: ‘We’ll see! My curiosity for the universe led me to physics and now I follow science to wherever it may lead me.’


Gwenhaël organises the activities for the general public in cooperation with professor Catherine De Clercq, Wtnschp (VUB) and InforSciences (ULB), with financial support of VUB, ULB and the International Solvay Institutes. Follow Gwenhaël on Twitter (@gwendewasseige) and Instagram (gwen.dewasseige).