Research activity often includes social and instructional interactions, especially when researchers and students from multiple disciplines collaborate on a project. But the experiential knowledge generated by these interactions is typically unmentioned in published scientific findings, says Dr. Götz Hoeppe, an associate professor of anthropology with cross-appointment to sociology and legal studies:

“I try to understand how these interactions unfold and how this embodied knowledge becomes available to data users, new team members and the next generation of students and researchers.”

Hoeppe recently returned from a 10-week research expedition to Antarctica aboard the icebreaker Polarstern. He was among scientists and technicians from Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Germany and the Netherlands conducting climate research. Operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, the expedition began in November 2023, leaving Cape Town, South Africa, and ended in Hobart (Tasmania), Australia.

marine geology team in blue coveralls on ship

With his own research focused on sociocultural aspects of science and technology, Hoeppe joined the expedition as a participant-observer of research in paleoceanography – the reconstruction of past climates from sediment records retrieved from the sea floor.

“The sediment records are used to assess the dynamics and stability of the East Antarctic ice sheet in light of globally rising temperatures,” explains Hoeppe, who is a member of the Waterloo Climate Institute.

Along with participating in the marine geology research to earn the ride, Hoeppe audio and video recorded the work to document and analyze the interactional and embodied aspects of the research — essentially, how technicians and experts in multiple disciplines cooperate in using equipment, training students, and producing data.

As he points out, the research – particularly interdisciplinary research — is full of social interactions and moments of instruction between scientists, technicians, and students. Much of this experiential knowledge is excluded from scientific publications, and often it could not be otherwise. But sometimes this lack can make the reuse of data by other researchers challenging because they don’t have the full context of that data’s collection. Hoeppe argues that “social scientists can help to make some of this experiential knowledge available for data reusers and future students.”

Gotz Hope working on computer graphs in University of Waterloo t-shirt

Apart from being an object of study and a source of data, the expedition holds memorable impressions for Hoeppe. “Sharing the confined space of a ship with a group of 90 people over more than two months, cooperating in sometimes exhausting work around the clock, experiencing storms, celebrating holidays, and marvelling together at the sights of icebergs, albatrosses, penguins, seals and whales, was an intense social experience.”

But what stood out most, he adds, “was the fragility of the Antarctic environment and of the life that prospers there. Antarctic sea ice was at a record low in the 2023-24 southern summer, and we observed that some unusually warm waters have already reached the base of glaciers entering the sea. The harbingers of coming changes are visible sooner than many have anticipated.”

Hoeppe’s research project, entitled “Making Sense of Data Reuse in Environmental Science”, is funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant. Back in Waterloo, he is analyzing his own data set. Undergraduate research assistant Sarah Heupel is transcribing the recordings, and in that process, is learning the essentials of audio and video transcription and analysis. In June, Hoeppe will present first results of this research at an international conference on studies of social interaction in Seoul, South Korea.

Photos from top: Hoeppe at right with teamembers and Polarstern moored on an ice floe (by Gerhard Frank); Marine geology team, with Hoeppe kneeling (by Andreas Weber); Hoeppe operating echosound device in search for sediment layers for sampling (by Eleni Anagnostou).