Tracking Climate Changes to the South Pole

By Cathy Jedruczek

Andre Balbas Queens College geology major Andre Balbas likes challenges.
Andrea Balbas and her family were getting ready for a trip to Six Flags Great Adventure when a 5.5 magnitude earthquake struck near their farm in Hollister, Calif. Balbas was just 6 years old, but already used to the earth shaking frequently.

Growing up on the rolling hills of the San Andreas Fault — the "earthquake capital of the world" — she experienced hundreds of quakes, including the deadly 6.9 magnitude 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake 10 years later.

Learning early to respect the earth's natural forces, she developed a passion for science, especially geology. "The power of the earth is very captivating," said Balbas, now 35 and a Queens College senior majoring in geology. "What seemed very scary to people was normal to me."

This fall, Balbas was to join Stephen Pekar, an assistant geology professor from Queens College, and his team of scientists, students and a middle school science teacher on a National Science Foundation-funded expedition to Antarctica. For two months they will live in unheated tents on eight-foot-thick sea ice with temperatures dipping below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

It's all part of Pekar's continuing work with the International Antarctic Drilling Program. The research aims to reveal more about the climate history of the South Pole and may yield important findings on the nature of global warming.

"This experience is greater than learning in an academic setting," said Balbas, who will help gather geophysical data and assist with the equipment. "I'm doing something that I hope will help other people who are negatively impacted by climate change."

After graduating from high school in 1991, Balbas enrolled in a geology program at Sacramento City College, but unable to afford her education, she dropped out after three semesters. "It came to the point where I had to ask myself do I eat or do I go to school," she said.

Seeking adventure, Balbas moved to New York in 1996. She drove across the country in a U-Haul truck to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, then found work in advertising sales at Fortune and Business Week magazines.

"I like to challenge myself and push boundaries that are common to me," said Balbas. "Then I really understand who I am and what I'm made of."

By 2004 she saved up enough money to quit her job and enroll at Queens College. Now in her final year, Balbas thinks that delaying her education had its benefits. "I think it's much easier, knowing myself and what I'm good at and the skills that I need to work on," she said.

Her resume reflects a gamut of experiences. Research on sediment core samples from the floor of Long Island Sound led to a fellowship from the group Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees. As part of the fellowship, Balbas, whose ancestors are from Mexico and Spain, attended the Science Steering and Evaluation Panel of the Independent Ocean Drilling Program in Busan, South Korea, as a student observer last May.

During the summer Balbas also participated in a 10-week NASA Academy at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where she assisted with a group project and conducted her own laboratory research on the "physical processes in our solar system and universe that have influenced Earth's biosphere in the past and may do so again in the future."

Balbas' goal is to get a Ph.D. in geophysics at Oxford or Rutgers.

"If I wasn't a scientist I would've been a farmer," said Balbas. "Being surrounded by a farming community while growing up helps me ask questions and be successful as a scientist."