A smelly date with penguins but she's in her element

PHOTO: A smelly date with penguins but she's in her element
Ms Goh examining a Leach’s Storm Petrel chick during a field trip earlier this year to Buldir Island, off Alaska. Her latest stint will take her to Livingston Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula.

SINGAPORE - While most Singaporeans get to watch penguins only in animal shows on TV and in movies like March Of The Penguins, field assistant Michelle Goh has the chance to do far more - she will be "settling in" among the birds for four months.

The 26-year-old, who left Singapore last Monday, will be based on Livingston Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula, as she collects data on native gentoo and chinstrap penguins.

She has been hired by an American scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, who is conducting Antarctic marine research for conservation purposes.

For four months, Ms Goh will work with six American scientists and field assistants to keep tabs on penguins that have been tagged with a global positioning system (GPS) tracking device. The researchers will compile a variety of information about the birds, such as how much they weigh and when they lay their eggs.

This will be the first time that Ms Goh, who has a master's in animal conservation from Imperial College in London, will be working with penguins.

Though they look lovable on screen, she knows conducting research on them is another matter.

"Penguins are not easy to handle. They struggle a lot," she said. "I've been told to hold them down by putting them between my legs and shouting 'eeeaaa' so they stay still."

"Without a doubt, this job will make it to Dirty Jobs," she added, referring to the popular Discovery Channel TV show that features extreme work conditions. "I've been to penguin colonies and they are really smelly."

She noted that when people try to hold the birds, they get scared so they defecate.

"There's no point showering every day when we crawl on hands and knees and put our faces on the wall covered with their droppings," she said.

She spoke to The Straits Times two hours before check-in last Monday while stuffing her bag with a fleece jacket, an e-book reader and a soft toy for the 50-odd hour journey to Antarctica.

Her flight will take her to London, Sao Paulo in Brazil, and Santiago and Punta Arenas in Chile. She will then go on a three-day boat ride to reach her final destination.

She will be paid about $5,000 for the whole stint. This time next year, she will return to supervise the next field assistant, for double the salary.

As it is now summer in the southern hemisphere, the temperature does not hit unbearable lows. It is likely to hover around 0 deg C.

When asked why the job appealed to her, Ms Goh said: "There are very few Planet Earth moments, but when they happen, it's really amazing.

"For example, when a bird takes down another bird... when birds mate... and chicks hatch."

Her passion for seabirds grew out of her interest in their behaviour and survival instincts.

"Also, seabirds migrate a lot but they always seem to come back home."

Ms Goh herself returned to Singapore early last year after having lived abroad for nine years since she was 17. She had gone to Norway to study for the international baccalaureate diploma before enrolling at Brown University for a degree in biology, specialising in animal behaviour.

After graduating with a master's, she came back to Singapore, living with her parents in a landed property at Burgundy Estate in Bukit Batok.

But it was not long before she packed her bags again, and made three field trips - to New Zealand, and Alaska and California in the US - on unpaid volunteer stints.

It is a "privileged" lifestyle, admitted Ms Goh, noting that she would not be able to sustain this freelance work without her parents' support.

Her father is a Singapore Airlines pilot and her mother is a financial consultant. She has a younger brother who is a pilot trainee.

"A lot of people tend to think I'm going on a holiday when I do my fieldwork because I'm not really earning as well," she said. "But it is real work."

Being away all the time has made it hard for her to maintain meaningful, long-term relationships.

"In the field, I see the other researchers every single day, and when we leave the field, I never see them again, which is really annoying," she said.

"My best friend in Singapore calls me a 'part- time' friend," she added, noting that while she is in Antarctica, she can keep in touch with her friends only via e-mail.

"Also, there's this boy I'm seeing right now. I really like him, but I'm leaving again, so it's hard."

On the career and relationship fronts, the future might look uncertain, but her wanderlust will probably prompt her to set out again for new frontiers when the next opportunity pops up.

Where to next?

"The next place I want to go to is the Arctic Circle, to see the polar bears before the ice melts," she said.