Living my dream of working in Antarctica

9 November, 2018

I am just a normal 27-year-old lad. I enjoy sports, a good night out and I work in construction.  I didn’t get the grades I should have at school, mainly because I failed to push myself to my full potential. I tried many different career paths after leaving school; when a friend started work as a plant operator, on the promise of a good wage if you put the hours in, I joined him.

Around the same time, I developed an interest in charities like Greenpeace and WWF. As my awareness of environmental issues grew, I began to look for a way to combine my passion for environmentalism and the skills I had built up as a plant operator. I had followed the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) for a number of years and knew that jobs came up every now and then; however, I never once thought about how reliant BAS is on the operations and support teams, which are so important for the science to take place.

Plant operator Matt Southworth living his dream at Rothera Research Station

During all this time I had built up a bit of an obsession with all things David Attenborough – I’ve read his books, watched his programmes, devoured magazines with an article about him or by him – I even bought books that had the foreword by him; he was my main inspiration to make a change.

So when in mid 2017 I saw a plant operator job advertised by BAS, I thought: this is it! I spent the weekend “perfecting” my application, but unfortunately that time it wasn’t to be, and I did not get the job. After a couple of weeks of feeling very deflated, I decided that I would apply again the next year, and meanwhile I would do all I could to become the right man for the job. I threw myself into work and focussed on upskilling myself in preparation.

Just before Christmas 2017, a great opportunity arose. After a phone-in chat with BBC Radio 5 Live, I was given the chance to guest present a slot on the Breakfast Show. They asked if I had any interests, so I explained my passion for environmentalism. We decided I would interview Rossall Beach Buddies, a beach cleaning community charity linked to the Marine Conservation Society that my girlfriend Ayeesha and I go along to whenever we get chance. For my 5Live guest slot I also interviewed some children at a local primary school. It was a brilliant opportunity, and when I went live on radio in February 2018 everything went to plan – and although I did feel very nervous I also felt proud that I’d been able to raise the issue of environmentalism.

Around the same time, I got my interview date for BAS – round 2. The interview went well and I came away feeling positive. I had a nervous week’s wait but eventually got the call I was waiting for with the answer I really wanted – I was offered the summer season at Rothera Research Station – the UK’s Antarctic Hub, run by BAS. I thanked my new colleague politely but underneath was dying to jump around like Preston North End had been promoted to the Premier League!

The UK’s Antarctic Hub, Rothera Research Station, where Matt will be living till March 2019

My contract started in September 2018, and first of all I had to do some job-specific training. I went down to Coventry to take part in telehandler, lorry loader crane and cherry-picker training; it was great to meet new people who I would be working with and to talk about what we were looking forward to most. Then there was more training before deployment to the Antarctic. This took place at BAS Headquarters in Cambridge. That was when it finally sank in that I was off to Antarctica and finally able to make a difference. We watched lots of very interesting presentations about life and work in Antarctica, had a day of first aid training and best of all, sea survival training in a deep wave pool with lashing rain and heavy winds! It was all very real and lots of fun.

Little did I know what was in store for me when I got home from Cambridge. Ayeesha had been sneaky and organised a surprise leaving party with about 70 of my friends and family, some of whom I rarely get chance to see. I couldn’t believe not one person had let the cat out of the bag! As I finished my speech later in the night, Ayeesha stood up and said “there is one more special person who couldn’t make it tonight but sent you this” and handed me an envelope. I was perplexed, wasn’t everyone there? I opened the envelope and it was from Sir David Attenborough himself – a signed picture with a note wishing me well for my work in Antarctica. I was overawed. Ayeesha really went above and beyond, she is very special and has been behind me all the way.

Goodbyes never are easy. I was setting off for six months in Antarctica. At Heathrow there were tears from Ayeesha, but in there were happy tears too. I waved my Mum, Dad and Ayeesha off and joined the BAS group that I was flying with. The flights were long but after 3 days of travelling we finally touched down on the White Continent. A year and a half after the start of my journey, with a few obstacles, ups and downs, I am finally here, sat at my desk in Rothera Research Station, Antarctica, writing this blog. What a journey it has been, but I can’t wait for what is to come.

Matt and girlfriend Ayeesha say goodbye at Heathrow before Matt heads off to Antarctica