Growing up, Paul Sipiera was just a normal kid. "I was not a genius," he says. "I didn't think I was good enough. I never thought I could experience the things I've seen in my life."
What Sipiera has seen in his life is pretty remarkable. Last year, the Harper College professor led an expedition into the Thiel Mountains of Antarctica in which 33 meteorites were discovered. Scientists hope that by studying meteorites they will learn more about the origin of planets and the foundation of life, itself. They also believe meteorites may contain evidence of life on other planets.
Sipiera's expedition team was made up of scientists and researchers who spent 8 days searching for their treasure in the brutal environment of Antarctica. “It really is the end of the world," says Sipiera. "Imagine 500 people living in an area the size of the United States and Mexico."
The team camped in tents, which made survival in the sub-freezing temperatures a constant thought. "Simply staying alive really dominated our days,“ Sipiera says. "You eat as much food as you can and try to stay active. That helps you stay warm."
Two of the meteorites they found are extremely rare. "They come from an asteroid called Vesta," says Sipiera. "Vesta is 300 million miles out, between Mars and Jupiter." According to Sipiera, meteorites have revealed sino-bacteria in fossils that are some 90-million years old. He says the bacteria are indistinguishable from that found on earth. "It's like looking at twins," he says. "You could not tell the difference between them."
Sipiera says there are two reasons that Antarctica is the best place on earth to find intact meteorites. Antarctica has no seasons, no warming or rain, so meteorites aren’t subject to the effects of erosion. Meteorites will stay preserved in the cold, dry environment for thousands of years. "The interaction with water is at a minimum," Sipiera says. "Meteorites may stay intact in a dry desert for 20,000 years while the average in Antarctica is 200,000 to 400,000 years."
Another helpful factor in gathering meteorites is the way the ice shifts in Antarctica. "The ice is always moving and the meteorites pile up against the mountains," says Sipiera. "It's like a big conveyer belt." The meteorites from the expedition were turned over to NASA scientists for research.
Sipiera is a planetary geologist. Geology has been part of Sipiera’s life since childhood, when he was "constantly picking up rocks and fossils." He credits his interest of science and astronomy to his mother, who was "hooked on the moon." "She was lucky enough to have a room with a window that looked out on the moon as a child," he says. "She would look at it every night." As an adult, Sipiera once borrowed a moon rock to show his mother and boasted, "Here, Mom, I brought you the moon."
Sipiera grew up in a time when space exploration was new and exciting. For the first time in history, the world watched as astronauts hurtled through space. In 1960, the Echo Satellite was launched. Echo was a low earth-orbiting communications satellite that reflected radio and television signals to stations back on Earth. The aluminum satellite was 100 feet long and visible to people on the ground, including 12-year-old Sipiera. "It was really just a big balloon but you could see it," he says. "At 5:45 you could go outside and look up and see this bright thing traveling across the sky." At that point, Sipiera knew he wanted to learn more. "I wanted to some way be a part of space exploration," he says.
Even as a young adult, Sipiera didn't equate his passion for science with a career. "I really didn't think I could be a scientist," Sipiera says, "But, in college, I realized I was pretty good at this. That's when you start to learn what you can do with your life. You test yourself to see where your strengths are and try not to be afraid."
Sipiera earned a BA degree in History with a strong minor in Earth Science from Northeastern Illinois University. He holds an MS degree in Earth Science from the same university.
Sipiera shares his love of science through his books. His published works include 29 titles. Twenty-six of them were written for children. "You've got to get them when their minds are most fertile," he says. "If you can hook a child before age 12, the roots will still be there in adulthood."
The topics of Sipiera's books range from space to earthquakes and floods. His “I Can Be” series shows young readers, ages 4 – 8, what it is like to be an astronomer, geologist, oceanographer, physicist, biologist, geographer or chemist. Another series of Sipiera’s, the “True Book” series, is aimed at slightly older readers, ages 9–12, and focuses on planets, constellations, galaxies, and earthly phenomena like thunderstorms and volcanoes. "You write best if you write about what you know," he says. "I'm shooting from the hip. I know these subjects." Sipiera says the most important thing about his books is that they are factual, adding, "There is a lot of bad information out there."
Sipiera has also written a book about his own, personal, hero, Earnest Shackleton, the leader of an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in 1914. Shackleton and his 27-man crew were stranded on ice floes when their ship, HMS Endurance, was lodged and crushed by ice some 1,200 miles from civilization. "When I really started camping in Antarctica, I began to relate my own experiences there to Shackleton's," he says. "It became an almost parallel situation. When the wind was blowing, I would think of Shackleton. We had all the modern equipment. He had nothing."
Shackleton's was an adventure of survival that lasted two years. It was remarkable that he, and every member of the crew, survived. "It was pure willpower," says Sipiera. "That determination to accomplish your mission and stay alive. They were always low on food and it's so easy to lose control down there as a leader. He had his problems but he still held everyone together."
Sipiera lives in Algonquin, Illinois, with his wife, Diane, and their two daughters, but he is setting his professional sights on the North Pole and the field of astrobiology. Astrobiologists are trying to understand the building blocks of life by studying the compounds that combine to create life. They are investigating the possibility of life on other planets by examining what he calls "the weirdest forms of life on earth."
Astrobiology is a new science, which proves that there is still much to learn. Sipiera says limitless possibilities await scientists of the future. "There is so much opportunity," he says. "The best will always succeed but you don't start at the top. You have to work your way up the ladder. Set your goals and keep your eye on what you want. As your interests develop, you follow those leads."