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Some Like It Cold: How To Get Your Sustainability Degree From UW While Living In Antarctica

Blaise Kuo Tiong standing on the top of the South Pole.Before completing an online master’s degree Sustainable Systems Engineering at UW-Madison, Blaise Kuo Tiong lived in some extreme climates throughout his career. And those climates are what led him to graduate school at UW-Madison.

Blaise spent the past three and a half years working at the Maunakea Observatories at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii on the Big Island of Hawaii. He worked on the software and programming of observatory operations for the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and consistently experienced beautiful weather.

“You wake up and it’s 75 and you go to bed and it’s 75 pretty much year-round,” he said. “Everywhere you’re probably no more than 10 minutes away from the beach.”

Except if you’re on the top of a mountain.

“I worked on the summit of Maunakea, a mountain on our island that’s nearly 14,000 feet. At the summit, we actually get a lot of snow,” he explained. “When we’re up there, we’re in parkas. It’s funny because you live in Hawaii, but you work and then you wear gloves and boots to work every day.”

As polar opposite as that weather seems, Blaise was used to the change after working in the most extreme polar location of the world, Antarctica. He worked as a computer systems administrator at McMurdo Station then at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

“During the wintertime, it gets down to about negative 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It will get to maybe negative nine or so, that’s the warmest part of the summer–what we call summer.”

Blaise Kuo Tiong in Antartica at the McMurdle station in the South Pole. Through his work in Antarctica, Blaise learned about UW-Madison. After computer programming, he worked for a neutrino detector project called Ice Cube, which is managed by UW. Before going to work at the Ice Cube, he attended training on campus.

“That’s how I first heard of the Sustainable Systems program,” he said. Antarctica inspired Blaise to attain his master’s degree in Sustainable Systems Engineering, a curriculum of sustainability science, building and demand-side efficiency, and renewable energy design, which Blaise did completely online in Hawaii. Most of his classmates were engineers–many worked in power plants around Wisconsin, while others were from around the U.S.

“Antarctica is kind of where I got a little bit of interest in sustainable systems. Living down there, you’re on an isolated station, all of your supplies come in by airplane or by boat, and you’re really acutely aware of the resources that you’re using,” he said.

This experience inspired his Sustainable Systems Engineering capstone project. In Hawaii, sustainability is a big focus also because resources are more expensive than everywhere else. In fact, Blaise’s study in sustainable systems engineering overlapped with his work at the observatories in Hawaii during the program.

“It was pretty interesting working in Hawaii and also doing the program because a lot of things overlapped [between classes and observatory operations.] I ended up writing one paper about it, and I submitted it to one of the observatory conferences. It was cool because I did some work for school and it also applied to work; I got credit for it and also got paid doing it.”

After successfully completing his Master of Engineering: Sustainable Systems Engineering degree and living in a couple different hemispheres, Blaise is now on his way to Sydney, Australia, to pursue a Ph.D. in an astronomy program at Macquarie University. He’ll have to get used to warm weather again, and speaking of weather…

The real question is: How does Antarctica compare to Wisconsin winters? “What really matters is how much longer you can be out there [in Antarctica]. In the cold in Wisconsin, maybe you can be out all day. There, in negative 100, you can be out for maybe 20 minutes then you start to get uncomfortable,” Blaise said. “It just shortens the amount of time that you can be outside, is pretty much the big difference.”

It’s official, folks: There isn’t much of a difference between Wisconsin and Antarctica.

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