So you wanna be an Arctic scientist?

 

“Ablutions were outstanding. I cannot think of a finer indicator of esteem in our field than being able to note you’ve brushed your teeth in a cryoconite hole.”

Author’s email to collaborator describing life in a field camp, August 2014

Every so often I am approached by students asking how to get into the field of cold region science in general. I’m not the best person to ask. My own introduction to the field was accidental and I still feel as if I’m “getting into it”. With the caveat that there are many people who are vastly more experienced and wise than I, here’s a summary of the advice I tend to give. It will be in two parts. This first part relates more to career and skill development. The second part is a little more introspective. Neither deal with the practicalities of fieldwork in any great detail, or the unwritten rules of “Field Club” (1. Never argue with a man wearing trousers made from a polar bear. 2….). Perhaps a post for another day?

Both parts are entirely subjective and highly prejudicial to my own experience, which is mainly of the Arctic. I will use “Arctic” and “polar” fairly interchangeably though. I expect that aspects of this advice could apply equally to other environments too.

If you disagree, or have some advice of your own you are welcome to post a comment!

  1. Don’t specialize too soon.

It is better to gain a solid grounding in marine biology / biochemistry / terrestrial ecology / geochemistry / whatever than specifically polar marine biology or Arctic biology. Most people take skills and experience they have developed in other fields and transfer it across to research questions pertinent to the Arctic or the Antarctic.

Unless employed/studying at a polar research institute, most “Arctic researchers” have fingers in other pies too. At the moment I work on projects involving deserts, pathogens, subsurface microbiology, coal mines and polar explorer poo too. If you are forced to specialize, specialize in as many different things as you can have some success in / the grownups let you do.

You will appreciate the breadth and depth of your training if you are successful in your ambition as it will give you novel perspectives on the systems you work on, but also as an insurance plan if your career plans take a different direction.

  1. Learn to write. Better.

Getting to the Arctic is a costly business. You will need to win grants and write papers. Notwithstanding Advice subheading #3, the ability to express your science in writing is as vital as your ability to mend a snowmobile at -20*C or catch barnacle geese.

trackchanges

Track changes: up there with crevasses and sledge dog poo in the Arctic annoyance scale.

Scientific writing is a skill which takes time to refine, so if you’re an undergraduate, this endeavour starts with the next essay you research, plan, write and reference.

For more guidance, have a look at (Arctic) microbiologist Joshua Schimel’s book Writing Science.

  1. Bring your other CV to the party.

You will be evaluated on the strength of your academic CV. Depending on the stage of your career, this will mean your grades, your degrees, your papers, your grants. These count for a lot when applying for studentships, funds or jobs. So make your academic CV as strong as possible.

Nevertheless, when it’s freezing, and snow is being driven into your numbed face, your GPS batteries just died and your fieldmate is starting to mumble, fumble and stumble, your first aid skills and above all, the ability to get a tent up and get a brew on are what counts.

IMGP0404

Never make camp without at least two means of simultaneously making brews. The third pot is in case someone wants to make hot squash, or the devil’s juice, coffee.

There’s a whole lot of other skills that matter to an Arctic scientist. These range from cold weather camping, backcountry skiing, mountaineering (all fairly obvious) to advanced first aid, VHF or satellite communications, PADI dive certifications, RYA boating qualifications (and generally mucking around in boats), mechanics, weapons handling, mountain & crevasse rescue and ropework, Logistical planning, Working with aircraft and getting permits. This list is abridged from just one (exceptional) colleague’s CV.

These are skills which are seldom taught on any undergraduate curriculum, but many can be developed via assorted clubs and societies, or even just the plain ol’ University of Life. Make the most of any opportunities to gain them.

IMG_8529

Boat being steered conventionally. Can also be steered with two bits of paracord if the steering column fails mid fjord.

You don’t have to be MacGuyver (yet) but an ability to solve problems (logistical, medical, scientific) with limited resources is really useful. Similarly, while being “outdoorsy” is a definite asset, for every successful scientist who can winter climb to Scottish V standard there are two that have never used crampons before. The bottom line is that being able to function in a hostile environment is often a prerequisite to get data.

This means keeping your feet warm and dry, the insides of your nostrils sunburn free and being able to make a hot brew under any conditions.

IMGP1948

Anyone seen Tonto? Ice sheets are high glare environments and you can indeed get sunburn in unusual places, like inside your nose. I am told it is almost as painful as watching the X Factor.

Oh, and having the right bits of paper count too, especially when the logistical support people evaluate your ability to survive in the field.

  1. Respect your environment / know the system.

It goes without saying that fieldwork in the Arctic entails working in quite fragile places and it’s important to minimize your environmental impacts. But the above point has more to do with knowing your environment. If you’re a biologist focusing on the ecology of a particular shrub, it really pays dividends to know all about the heathland you’re working on. Likewise a glacier microbiologist needs to know about ice structure and glacial processes. Otherwise your work risks losing context.

IMG_8223

Situational awareness: Be aware of the broader context of your own specific focus of research.

My advice is to learn as much as you can about the natural environment in which you’re working. Read textbooks from other fields. Attend courses. Talk to people from other disciplines: for a terrestrial or aquatic biologist, collegial links with a good geomorphologist or oceanographer respectively are worth their weight in gold. They will fill in gaps in your knowledge about your experimental system you never knew existed, and it will lead to new hypotheses. Be wary of losing sight of your own discipline though. You will add most value in being able to bring your unique skills to the table.

Knowing the history of your field and polar exploration is quite useful too. I always take a copy of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World to read about his exploits with Scott’s last expedition. It reminds me that no matter how bad my field day may be, it could be a lot worse. Although I empathise with Cherry Garrard: a very myopic youngster who accidentally found his way to the ice in his early twenties, it’s also a good reminder of the massive chasm between polar exploration in its golden era and polar science in the Iridium era.

To be continued…

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About Aber Cryoconite

Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK. Research interest: polar and alpine microbiology. Views my own.
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