WHILE the family of pioneering glaciologist Martin Siegert face temperatures hovering around freezing in their home county of Suffolk, the 45-year-old professor of geosciences is battling a chilly –25C in Antarctica.

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The former Sudbury Upper School student from Glemsford is the principal investigator on a ground-breaking scientific mission which has been described as one of the “most exciting and ambitious” explorations of our time.

After three years preparation and 16 years research, a team headed by Prof Siegert is in Antarctica poised to carry out landmark research, drilling through 3km of solid ice into subglacial Lake Ellsworth.

The aim of the mission, which is scheduled to reach a climax on Friday, is to search for life forms in the water below and to sift through lake-bed sediments for clues that could provide invaluable information about former climates.

Last night, his brother Peter Siegert, who lives in Sudbury, told the EADT: “From the mid-90s Martin started looking into underground lakes when no-one else was doing that kind of research. Lots of data had been collated but hadn’t been put together. Martin spent time mapping out the Antarctic region and discovered there are thousands of underground lakes there.

“The main problem that no-one had solved before was how to access the water under several kilometres of ice.”

As a result of his research, a team from the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre created a titanium water-sampling probe and a sediment corer, which will be lowered down through a borehole cut though 3km of ice by a specially made hot-water drill. When they break through the ice, they will have just 24 hours to take a sample from the lake before the borehole freezes over.

Prof Siegert’s mother Kath, of Little Waldingfield, near Sudbury, said despite her son’s world-class achievements, his feet remained firmly on the ground. She added: “Martin wasn’t particularly academic until he reached upper school and he didn’t really have a clear idea of what he wanted to do when he left. He is a shining example of what can be achieved with an ordinary education and upbringing. The wonderful thing is that he is not in the least bit ‘nerdy’ or a boffin. He is lovely to talk to because he puts everything in simple terms and makes everything interesting.”

She said Prof Siegert had suffered a setback in his last year at Reading University when he lost his father, Dave, very suddenly. However, he went on to study for a PhD at Cambridge and is now Professor of Geosciences at the University of Bristol.

His family could not be more proud, Mrs Siegert said, adding: “There are elements of risk involved in this mission but we try not to dwell on those – instead we try to concentrate on the scientific activity. We take great pride in what he’s doing and what he has achieved. It has been strange to see him on the TV being heralded as a great scientist and professor, when he is just Martin to us.”

Peter Siegert added: “You can imagine that throughout the last few years, Martin has had a plan to do this mission and it has been a long time coming. My mum and sister, and Martin’s wife Maggie are amazingly proud and we all think it’s fantastic to see him getting the recognition he deserves.”

From Antarctica, Prof Siegert, who credits his family with giving him the inspiration to succeed, said: “For the first time we are standing at the threshold of making new discoveries about a part of our planet that has never been explored in this way.

“Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated for up to half a million years is an exciting prospect. I feel hugely proud of everyone involved in the [Lake Ellsworth] consortium – to lead such a programme is a genuine and unique privilege.”

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