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Serendipity and Where It Might Lead


While going through our careers, I think we all become aware of how important contacts are in formulating the next step. Sometimes it is serendipity. Other times, one acts on advice. My life was changed in this way. ...

How It All Began

When I graduated with a master's degree in marine biology, I could get no more than low-paying, short-term contracts. I gave up and went traveling with my husband for a year.

Then I was lucky to pick up work with Dr. Ed Bousfield at the Canadian Museum of Nature, a Crown Corporation in the Government of Canada. After 5 years of contracting, I secured a less tenuous "term" status. I had a foot in the door. Soon after, the director of the museum suggested that I upgrade my qualifications with a Ph.D. at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. I was loath to do this as I had two small children. However, I figured that I had no choice but to agree, and it turned out to be easier than I expected. My husband's help was essential, and by then I had research experience under my belt. That training led to permanent job status and a fortuitous meeting with Dr. John Oliver.

During my doctoral studies, my advisor, Dr. Henry Howden, suggested that I spend time on the coasts of North America getting to know the behavior of my study animals. While visiting Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Monterey Bay, California, I met my colleague Peter Slattery, who invited me to participate in an Alaskan research trip the following year. On the cruise, I had the good fortune to meet the head of Moss Landing's benthic lab, John Oliver, who transformed my life. Having only known me for a week, John invited me to Antarctica, suggested an arctic research program, and told me to "think big." As I soon discovered, Oliver inspires those around him with his vivacity, talent, and enthusiasm for science, and has likely changed the direction of more students than myself.

Oliver was not one to simply toss out suggestions. The following year, the Canadian Museum of Nature provided Oliver with funding for research in the Canadian High Arctic. With help from his students Rikk Kvitek and Hunter Lenihan, we established a collaborative research program that has run for 9 years. The talents of Kvitek, Lenihan, and Stacy Kim of Moss Landing, and Steve Blasco of the Geological Survey of Canada were key to making our research a success. The following year, Oliver made good on his invitation to bring me down to Antarctica, and that resulted in eight more returns, with a new, 3-year grant now in the offing.

The Right Decision

Research in the Arctic and Antarctic has been tremendously stimulating. It is physically demanding, because we do our work by scuba diving in ice-filled, sub-zero water. Yet, it has an exotic nature that the public finds captivating. The Office of Polar Programs in the National Science Foundation (NSF) supports U.S. research in both the Arctic and Antarctic, and has generously supported my collaborations with my Moss Landing colleagues. Our Antarctic research has contributed to convincing the National Science Foundation to apply sewage treatment at McMurdo Station, Antarctica's largest base. Our Arctic research has shown that ice scour disturbance can have a positive influence on benthic diversity, and it has lead to an invitation from German colleagues to study the re-colonization of ice scours in Antarctica.

Polar Resources

With renewed interest in arctic oil and gas development and recognition that the polar regions are early warning systems for climate change, both foreign and Canadian researchers once again are focusing on the Arctic. Canadian universities that support research in the North have a network called the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies (ACUNS). The Canadian Polar Commission is a useful source of polar information and runs a newsgroup service for ACUNS. A new virtual circumpolar training facility, the University of the Arctic, is also being established. Northern research grants are awarded by the Northern Research Institute, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, the Arctic Institute of North America, the Aurora Research Institute, and the Nunavut Research Institute. The federal logistical support facility for arctic research is the Polar Continental Shelf Project, which is the best way for students to find out who's doing what in the eastern Canadian High Arctic.

Unlike other countries, Canada does not have a central polar research program. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, which funds Canadian university-based science, reviews polar research proposals on equal basis with those aimed at warmer climates. However, costs for working in the Arctic have escalated considerably, with little added federal support. Canada also has no research base in Antarctica, but it encourages bipolar collaboration through the Canadian Arctic-Antarctic Exchange Program. Countries such as the United States, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Britain, and Japan have dedicated huge resources to studying the antarctic environment and have interests in the Arctic as well. They invite foreign participation in their research programs, and this enables Canadians to conduct antarctic or bipolar research. The study of climate warming is one of the draws, and there is now strong evidence that both the Antarctic Peninsula and the western Canadian Arctic are warming.

The Canadian Museum of Nature has been very supportive of my research and promotional activities, enabling me to study benthic communities in many systems, teach marine biology on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, and popularize my findings through the media and museum exhibits. The latter function, popularizing science, is essential for all scientists. More than once I have heard that if you cannot explain your research to the lay-person, you do not have it straight in your own mind.

Polar Ambassador

One consequence of my antarctic work is that I have become an ambassador for the polar world. I am a member of the Canadian Committee for Antarctic Research, and I have become Canada's representative to the Biology Working Group on SCAR, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. These committees offer a means to network, influence policy, and develop new science initiatives for the Antarctic. As a result of this involvement, Geoff Green and Angela Holmes, founders of Students on Ice, an organization that runs polar learning expeditions for teenagers, invited me to become a member of the education team. Students on Ice has introduced me to a new way of interpreting the polar world through the eyes of the young, and I have participated in some amazing trips both north and south.

Carpe diem

There is a certain draw to the Arctic and Antarctic that causes people to return again and again. It may be the immense feeling of wilderness and wide-open space. It may be the chance to be part of a different culture. It may be the unique research opportunities that the polar regions provide. It is a life-changing experience that you should seize if the opportunity arises. You have to work hard and take the initiative yourself, but sometimes you need a helping hand. I hope I've shown some ways to make that a reality for you. Look for, and listen to, the John Olivers of the world, set a goal, and "think big."

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