Polar Careers: Jorien Vonk

Jorien Vonk on Shuchi Lake in Russia. Vonk is a biogeochemist whose research has taken her to many remote regions of the Arctic. Photo: Jorien Vonk Jorien Vonk’s passion for the Arctic started when she was a teenager and has grown ever since. Today, Vonk is a post-doctorate researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands where she focuses on biogeochemical cycling in arctic regions and the fate of thawing permafrost.

Vonk’s interests don’t stop with research. She’s also engaged in nurturing the next generation of researchers both in the lab and the field. She began collaborating with Max Holmes and the Polaris Project in 2010 as a post-doctorate researcher. She will return to Siberia this summer as a faculty member, mentoring students and documenting their experiences through photography.

This month, Vonk shares how her interests in the Arctic began and where it’s taken her with field notes.

PFS: You've traveled quite extensively and lived in a number of countries. Please tell us a little about your background.

A Great Grey Owl. Vonk illustrates the beauty and uniqueness of the Arctic through her photography. Photo: Jorien Vonk

Jorien Vonk: Originally, I studied environmental science. I always hesitated between chemistry and earth sciences, but then I decided to go for kind of a mixture. As part of my masters, which sparked my interest in the region, I spent time on Svalbard, an island archipelago north of Norway in the Arctic Ocean. I was there a year studying snow hydrology and Arctic mine pollution.

After that, I left research for a while and then went back to do my PhD in Stockholm, where I moved more towards the permafrost world using all kinds of chemical and isotopic techniques to see if there’s actually more old permafrost that is now thawing and to see if we can detect that in rivers or the oceans.

PFS: In general, what are your scientific interests and what is your area of focus at Utrecht University?

JV: I would classify myself as a biogeochemist or a hydrobiogeochemist. Biogeochemistry is an applied form of chemistry where, simply said, researchers look at molecules, bacteria, or chemical elements that occur in the natural environment to learn something about the system.

I like the interactions between hydrology and terrestrial systems. Rivers are big integrators of the landscape that can tell you a lot. You can also look at the more biological parts—enzymes and bacteria—that can help generate greenhouse gasses.

PFS: How did you become interested in the Arctic and polar science?

JV: My interest was triggered by this one book I read when I was 16:  When the Light Comes. It was about a Flemish girl from the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium who went to Svalbard for a year and over wintered there with a seal fur hunter. I like that the Arctic is so remote and that the seasons and nature really affect the people there. It’s not like here—the middle-European latitudes—where we rule or determine everything. There, it’s nature against us. So that’s what is special.

PFS: You have participated in the Polaris Project for several years. What is your role as part of the Polaris team?

Vonk with Polaris Project undergraduate students in 2010. Photo: Jorien Vonk

JV: I’ve been involved with the Polaris Project for the last three summers, from 2010. I contacted Max Holmes asking is we could collaborate or if I could do a postdoc with him, and then he invited me to join in 2010. The first two years, my role was more like a postdoc—serving as a bridge between the undergraduate students there and the more senior PIs. Now I’m more and more part of the faculty.

It was a great experience. I was suddenly exposed to scientists with different backgrounds and views of the system. Some were ecologists, others were more terrestrial people.

That makes the Polaris Project quite unique and very interesting. The students can learn from us, and I can learn from the senior PIs (and from the students!).

PFS: You've taken many amazing photographs of the Arctic, including documenting your experience with the Polaris Project in Siberia. What can people learn about the Arctic and Arctic science from your pictures?

JV: You try to make people curious. People always ask me when I go to Siberia, “Oh! It must be cold there?” But in these pictures you can see people are swimming in the river everyday in bikinis. Parts of the Arctic can be very warm at times.

PFS: What are some of the rewards and challenges of working in the Arctic and in the region's coastal ecosystems?

JV: If you really enjoy being in the Arctic, you are willing to accept some challenges—the mosquitoes, mud, no Internet and all these kinds of things. But the reward is it’s such a unique place. Every time I go, especially when I go back to Siberia, the landscape is never the same. You never get bored of it. Another reward is the people. There’s a common interest that creates good energy.

When you are in the Arctic you have to seize the moment, especially with cruises. On cruises, it’s now or never. There’s not a lot of sleep, there’s lots of work and at the end you’re totally exhausted, but you can build on the experiences and the samples you collect for years and years after that.

PFS: What's next?

Busy prepping sediment cores during her 2008 voyage on a Russian ship in the East Siberian Sea.

JV: I just started at Utrecht University a few months ago. I got a fellowship from the Dutch National Science Foundation. So I’ll be here for at least three years, but I hope to stay here and build my own lab with PhD students, masters students and postdocs. One of the Polaris Project students from last year is going to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship to come to my lab, so that is a good start!

Next year, 2014, I will be on the Swedish icebreaker the Oden returning to study the East Siberian Sea. I first visited there in 2008. SWERUS-C3 is an international, large project by Swedes, Russians and Americans to study carbon dynamics in the Siberian arctic land-shelf-basin system. I will be looking mostly at the bottom of the sea because there is a lot of permafrost underwater on the shelf that is still frozen. We don’t really know that much about it. I will be part of the team collecting sediment cores.