What comes to mind when you hear the words polar scientist? When Antarctic seal researcher Prem Gill asked that question in 2018, he didn't see himself in the picture. So he set up Polar Impact to support people of colour working at the poles, and increase access to and diversity in polar science. He also turns seal vocalisations into grime music to attract youngsters to the field. And if that wasn't cool enough, he offers students a chance to monitor 'Seals from Space'.

Growing up in inner city Reading, outside London, as the child of Punjabi immigrants, Prem Gill never imagined that he would make a career monitoring Antarctic seals from space.

Young Prem felt a 'weird disconnect' to nature. It was something he experienced only through television and video games. "I know it sounds odd, but just going for a walk in nature is a really foreign concept for young kids growing up in my area in the UK. Nature became this weird, almost mythical thing, which made me more intrigued and interested. In school, I wanted to be a bit like David Attenborough."

He got his wish. Today @PolarPrem is a PhD research fellow at Cambridge University, part of a joint project with the Scott Polar Research Institute, British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and World Wide Fund for Nature, which uses satellite images to study the habitat preferences and population trends of Antarctic seals. When the COVID pandemic put polar research temporarily on ice, he was invited to become a researcher on Attenborough's Frozen Planet II.

All of which may sound like a charmed journey, but it was often a lonely one in terms of finding peers who shared his background.

From the Arctic circle out

There's nothing like being in the northernmost town in the world to amplify feelings of isolation. Prem was doing research in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, deep inside the Arctic circle, when he first reached out to find other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) working in the polar field. "I realized that there were many groups based on gender and on sexuality, but there wasn't a single group for ethnicity or race." So he created one.

Polar Impact started out as a one-man operation, but soon expanded across the globe as people started connecting and sharing their experiences. "Now we've got a team of co-organizers, we have volunteers, and we have members. It's going really well. There's a whole host of interesting projects we've got going on."

Prem could hardly have imagined where his fascination with mapping would lead him.

En route to the poles

When Prem applied to Cardiff University, they offered him a spot in marine geography. He was in his kitchen celebrating when his sister said, "You're going to study marine geography? Don't you need to know how to swim to do that?"

Prem's undergraduate dissertation involved mapping parts of the ocean likely to have high value biodiversity using satellite data. He took extra evening and online classes in programming and coding, and his hard work paid off: he graduated top of his class, applied to do his PhD at Cambridge, and got a fully funded scholarship.

He was drawn to the 'Seals from Space' project because he could use his hydrographic experience – only now, instead of mapping the sea floor, he uses satellites to look at what's on top of the sea ice.

Antarctic ice seals are predators near the top of the food chain, and amongst the largest consumers of Antarctic krill. But because they inhabit the inaccessible sea ice zone, it is difficult to track them from boats or planes. Prem's team uses VHR (very high-resolution) satellite imagery to study the seals and their sea ice habitat.

"It's super, super high resolution – 30 centimetres per pixel, which is the size of an A4 piece of paper. In theory, if you left your laptop out in Antarctica, I should be able to find it in a satellite image. I can see seals, I can see baby seals, and if a seal has just given birth, we can even see blood on the sea ice all the way from space."

Taking the planet's temperature

Monitoring of Antarctic ice seal populations can indicate changes in the Antarctic ecosystem's status and health. "This is important, because what happens in the Polar Regions affects the whole world. The Arctic and Antarctic act like a thermostat for the planet. If we can monitor what's going on in these areas, we can get an idea of what's going on globally, which has huge implications for assessing climate change."

This kind of technology is expensive, and often only accessible to institutions with significant funding. "I thought, the countries that will benefit the most from having a resource like this are going to be small island nations, which don't have a massive budget for conservation." Prem's undergraduate dissertation involved investigating the development of tools that would give anyone across the globe access to free satellite data and the ability to build maps to tell them which parts of their ocean they should protect. "The whole idea is basically democratizing access to really useful scientific data”

Citizen science from space

Prem's work caught the attention of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, which set up the Diversity in Polar Research Initiative, and offered Prem a grant to fund 12 students.

"I always thought I would start opening doors for working class kids after I graduate; I didn't expect to be able to create these opportunities while doing my PhD. That was really incredible."

Together with his supervisor, Prem taught his students how to analyse satellite images – a skill that could be done remotely during lockdown. Not only did they learn the skills, but some were present for eureka moments – such as BAS's discovery of 11 new emperor penguin colonies in August 2020. "That was awesome!"

Encouraging as it is to find new wildlife populations, these are not immune to the impacts of climate change. This goes for seals as well as penguins, which is why Prem wanted to scale the initiative into a citizen science project where participants were not just mapping seals, but also sea ice. "There are many different types of sea ice, which will impact what a seal chooses to breed on. If they're really sensitive to a certain shape or size of sea ice, we know they're really sensitive to climate change."

Seeing yourself in science

While many STEM fields are quite diverse, when it comes to polar science and conservation, "diversity really drops off." Part of the problem is that youngsters just don't see themselves when they look at who is working in the field. The rise of remote meet-ups during lockdown meant that Prem was able to give talks to more inner city schools than before. "One of the things I discovered in lockdown is that there's a massive difference, even at a young age between kids who believe they can be polar explorers and those who don't. Essentially, in the private schools, kids are asking how can we be like you? But in the inner city schools, what they're saying is, thanks for sharing this experience, because we'll never experience it. So we really want to know what it's like from you. That's a big difference."

Another barrier is lack of insider advice on how to work the system. Many working class and inner city kids won't have access to friends or family members who can advise them about funding, or the kind of work opportunities that make a CV stand out in a university or scholarship application.

"There's lots of weird barriers in terms of just your knowledge of what you're capable of what you can do, how to do it, and how to fund it. For example, if you apply to a Masters degree in conservation, with an undergraduate in psychology, biology, geography, whatever, and you've also done a research project in Indonesia, or visited the Bahamas, the professor sees someone who's really dedicated. And then they might look at a second application and say, 'Okay, this person just has the geography degree, nothing outside of that.' But what the professor doesn't realize is that the student was probably working in Walmart over the summer holidays. That's not something you want to put on your CV when you're applying to Oxford and Cambridge. So it's really easy to mistake a lack of opportunity for a lack of dedication, desire and motivation."

Seal grime and postcards from the edge

So how do you reach those youngsters and attract them to polar science? Prem believes that a physical connection to the Polar Regions is key. "We're all connected to the polar regions, even if we don't realize it. From a climate and planetary perspective they're vital, because Polar Regions control the global climate."

If you can't bring the youngsters to the poles, you have to bring the poles to them, and Prem does this through a number of innovative, engaging media projects.

One of these is the 'postcard project', in which custom postcards depicting figures like Barbara Hillary, the first black woman to reach the north and south poles (at ages 75 and 79, respectively!), are sent from the Polar Regions to inner city schools. "For the postcard to reach the students, a person needs to take it to the polar region and then send it back. On the flip side of the postcard, you'll have a QR code, which will show the sender's virtual expedition diary, so the students can actually see where the card went and how it got back to them."

Another is through music. When Prem first heard the "eerie and beautiful outer-space vocalisations" that seals make, they reminded him of the samples he and his friends played when they listened to grime music, which was a big part of his youth. Now he's working on a virtual reality art installation 'Seals from Space', aimed at 12- to 19-year old secondary school children, which pairs his seal-voiced grime track (listen here) with 3D visuals of seals and Antarctica.

Opening access

Access is key. We only protect what we love, so the more people who engage with and learn about the wonders of our natural world, and its fragility, the more people will want to preserve it.

"Diversity of experience is so important if we are to fully understand the global implications of climate change and how we respond," says Prem.

It starts with acknowledging that we are all in this world together.