At the bottom of the world


Shannon Purcell’s job takes her to the sub-zero chill of the South Pole

Shannon Purcell ’98 was looking for a new adventure when she discovered a job posting for an unusual human resources management position with government contractor Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE). Purcell applied, got the job and now works with employees in Antarctica, supporting research projects conducted by the National Science Foundation.

It takes a special employee to work in Antarctica successfully for up to 13 months at a time. He or she must have the mental strength and physical ability to withstand many hours of darkness, sub-zero temperatures and life in remote areas.

Purcell’s professional duties involve hiring people—ranging from heavy equipment operators to administrative staff and tradespeople—who will thrive in such a harsh environment. Well-prepared with a degree in sociology and minor in government from Redlands, Purcell uses many of the experiences and skills she acquired during her undergraduate years in her work. “While at Redlands, I became a Theta sister and made friends for life,” she says. “I am still developing lifelong relationships, only now with the people I hire and work with. We really do become a family because of our shared love of adventure, but also because there is a lot of isolation in the work.”

While Purcell works from her Denver office some of the time, she has wintered in the South Pole herself, so she knows what it takes. “I partner with the Veterans’ Administration, the U.S. military and workforce organizations to recruit the right people for the right job,” she says. “Then, I focus on retaining good employees by creating value-added programs. It is important to have activities like outdoor sports, movie nights and a good library and gym for people to use.”

Purcell uses teamwork and peer counseling to help employees in Antarctica weather stressful situations and support each other. “My greatest challenge is managing people who are sometimes 10,000 miles away,” she says. “My most rewarding moments are when my teams are successful.”

The Cold Hard Facts

  • Three hours is Purcell’s record for being outdoors in -94°F.
  • Purcell gets to travel to New Zealand as a job perk.
  • Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE) employees in Antarctica range in age from 18 to 75.
  • October is the start of the summer season in Antarctica.
  • You can meet many interesting people in Antarctica, including former U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, who visited in November 2016.
  • The Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area, the world’s largest marine protected area (598,000 square miles) was recently established in Antarctica.
  • The Antarctic Program was launched in 1959, immediately after the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year, when 12 nations established 60 Antarctic research stations.
  • Antarctica holds 90 percent of the world’s ice, which represents 70 percent of the world’s fresh water.

Learn more about the U.S. Antarctic Program at For information on job openings with PAE, visit

—Michele Nielsen ’99


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