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The College of St. Scholastica

Fifty years ago, Sister Mary Odile Cahoon, OSB, Ph.D. and Dr. Mary Alice McWhinnie of DePaul University traveled to Antarctica and conducted research there for nine months. Starting their journey in January 1974, they became the first American women scientists to winter over on the world’s southernmost continent.

Photo of McMurdo StationPart of the United States Antarctic Research Program, their research project, entitled “Metabolic Studies of Cold Resistance of Invertebrates and Fish in Antarctic Waters,” studied temperature adaptation and the metabolism of Crustacea and was funded by the National Science Foundation. Working through 80-below Fahrenheit weather and 24 hours of darkness with a team of ten other scientists and 128 Navy men, Sister “Mary O.” took to the isolation from the rest of the world well, keeping busy with research and exploring the area around McMurdo Base.

Adventures beyond Antarctica

Along with her historic winter in Antarctica, Sister Mary O. was a biology professor at the College. She researched and founded the Ireland in the Spring program in Louisburgh, County Mayo, in 1979, the College’s first study abroad offering, serving as its director for 25 years.

Over the course of her illustrious career, Sister Mary Odile ably filled many administrator roles, including chair of the biology department, academic dean, chair of the Natural Science Division, vice-president and academic dean and senior vice-president. Sister Mary Odile made her monastic profession as a Benedictine Sister at St. Scholastica Monastery in 1951 and passed away in 2011.

Sr. Mary Odile Cahoon at her desk in the biolab at McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Sr. Mary Odile Cahoon at her desk in the biolab at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
Photo by Dennis Schenborn, 1974