Awakening at Sunrise: How My Arctic Experience Shaped My Career Goals


I was born and raised in Southern California, where my idea of dressing for cold weather consisted of putting on long pants. I never imagined I would spend 7 weeks working in an ice desert and live to consider the possibility of returning someday. But a string of serendipitous events caused me to participate in Alert 2000, an international field campaign organized to investigate the photochemistry of snow and ice during the arctic spring in Alert, Nunavut, Canada, which is ~300 km south of the North Pole. This experience not only generated exciting data, but it also enhanced my professional and personal development.

I became involved in Alert 2000 a mere 3 months before the campaign began and only 10 months into my postdoctoral research with Professor Barbara Finlayson-Pitts. A proposal we had co-authored with Chet Spicer (Battelle, Columbus, Ohio) to directly measure gaseous halogen concentrations by using atmospheric pressure chemical ionization (APCI) mass spectrometry in the early arctic spring was gratuitously funded at the eleventh hour, and Finlayson-Pitts asked me to participate in the field work despite the fact that I had no previous experience in field research. What I lacked in practical experience was less important than my preparation through previous laboratory training and my attitude. My graduate work on the interactions of hydrogen halides with thin ice films, and postdoctoral training in the monitoring of trace mixing ratios of gaseous halogen compounds with APCI mass spectrometry, provided me with the scientific background necessary for the campaign. Moreover, my postdissertation euphoria heightened my desire to submerge myself in a new area of research, so less than a day after the initial offer, I signed on to Alert 2000 and got ready to begin my adventure.

My arctic exposition came at a pivotal time in my career development. I was conducting negotiations for an assistant professor position that I had been offered in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at California State University, Los Angeles. But, understanding that it would permanently affect my future career opportunities, before I could commit myself to taking the position I needed to decide if this job was right for me. By participating in Alert 2000 I removed myself from my comfort zone, which allowed me to reflect on my personal values, needs, and desires in preparation for the biggest career decision of my young professional life.

My arctic experience was the equivalent to science boot camp, with a rapid fire of data, dialogue, and decision-making that supplemented my existing understanding of the art of practicing good science. My self-reflection coupled with the intense experience in scientific research helped me to define my career goals, and by the time I got back I had accepted my current position at California State.

Getting Ready ...

There is no such thing as too much preparation for a field campaign, and with only 3 months to prepare, I had to work quickly. As a petite, sun-worshipping California woman, my first order of business was to select the clothing that would prevent me from becoming a human Popsicle. After learning the basics of layering, I held extensive interviews with female survivors of polar research, who insured me that proper boots and gloves were the keys to comfort. When the salesperson made it clear to me that the boots I selected were too warm for shoveling snow at mid-latitudes, I smiled because I knew then that my -40°C suit of armor was complete.

Next up was equipment. Most of my preparation time was spent characterizing spectra and calibrating mass spectrometers both at the University of California, Irvine, and with Spicer at Battelle in Columbus, Ohio. I needed to become an effective mass spectrometer technician because I knew that site visits and overnight delivery of spare parts would be out of the question. Plus we'd have less than a week to install and calibrate the instrument after bringing it to the site on a sled in the dark, so I needed to be well prepared.

I also needed to do a lot of background reading. A successful field campaign generates data quickly, and the results of initial experiments often merit further investigation. As a novice to arctic research, I spent hours absorbing literature on previous studies so that I'd be ready to design impromptu experiments and compose educated data interpretations without the convenience of a library. The level of preparation I achieved for arctic research facilitated my future development of laboratory experiments down South.

In the Arctic

As an urban-dweller transplanted into the arctic wilderness, I learned to see the beauty and power of nature that I had previously overlooked. The study began in 24-hour darkness and ended with a glorious sunrise. There were days when the red glow of the sun would bounce across the horizon resulting in a perpetual sunrise. I was humbled by the power of the sun in its absence and in its return, and I was struck by the way the cycling effected the emotions, behavior, and sleep patterns of the entire camp. Understanding that a government-issue parka and snow pants were the only things between me and hypothermia while watching shadows resting on the contours of the snow, I felt as if I were walking on the moon. The stillness, absolute power, and mystery of the Arctic nurtured my desire to continually explore nature through chemical research and to share my passion with others as an educator.

Participating in Alert 2000 breathed new life into my quest for understanding through laboratory research. Before signing on to Alert 2000, I was investigating heterogeneous reactions on sea-salt ice and aerosols. I approached this work with moderate enthusiasm that I derived from literature reviews suggesting that the work facilitated our understanding of natural phenomena. In field research there is little speculation as to how observations apply to the natural world--you're out there observing it! Without controlled laboratory experiments, however, elucidating chemical mechanisms to explain fascinating field observations would be impossible. The marriage between laboratory and field research was made real to me through the science of Alert 2000. And after measuring ambient bromine and bromochloride in the Arctic in correlation with local ozone-depletion events, my laboratory research developed a new fervor that is alive to this day. Certainly, I no longer feel the need to justify my work to myself and can focus on helping others understand the urgency of my research. It is my hope that at least a fraction of my enthusiasm reaches my students ... and prospective funding agencies.

As quiet as it is kept, a sense of vulnerability in the Arctic is felt by all, especially during periods of continuous darkness. Raw and possessed by the power of Earth's outer limits, the intensity of human relationships in the Arctic is greatly amplified relative to day-to-day interactions down South. Conversations with near-strangers quickly dive into protected caverns of feeling, values, and dreams as we touch one another's emotional selves and wrestle unanswered questions such as the meaning of life. These candid conversations gave me a unique perspective on what is most important to people. They also fostered sustainable friendships and made me a better colleague, teacher, wife, and daughter. Not only did my arctic experience make me a better scientist, but it also made me a better person overall. In-depth conversations with academic, government, and private research institution professionals helped me to see clearly my professional objectives that fuel my journey as an assistant professor.

In closing, my participation in arctic research affected every aspect of my professional and personal lives. Preparation, performance, and analysis of the experiments I conducted during the campaign supplemented my graduate experience and prepared me for a career as an academic. The magnificence of the arctic wilderness reminds me of the power of nature and it nurtures my enthusiasm to explore its complexities through the chemical sciences. Finally, the relationships I built with others helped me see myself and develop career objectives that include spreading my enthusiasm for chemistry and life through education and research. My experience in arctic research was invaluable in my development as a science professional. I am thankful to have had the privilege and courage to participate. And I encourage others to face the challenge and reap the benefits of polar research.

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