Polar Careers: Laurel McFadden

I was 20 years old when I saw snow for the first time.  I was a junior at Pomona College [in California], and had been asked to join an expedition to Svalbard, a Norwegian island high above the Arctic Circle, to help with a study on a little bird called a dovekie.  That trip changed my life, and ever since then I’ve been hooked on arctic science!

I grew up on an orange farm in a tiny town in southern California.  My family took trips all around the state on the weekends to find wildlife or visit interesting rock deposits.  I grew up loving the outdoors, and worked on the farm and as an animal handler in veterinary hospitals.  I loved all subjects in high school and started college as an English major with a pre-med track.

In college, I was fascinated by my math and philosophy classes, and got interested in how people think about science.  In one class, “History of Mathematics,” we learned how the ancient Egyptians used a totally different method of counting and multiplication, and it opened a whole new world to me.  Math – and science – can be just as creative and cultural as art and literature!  I developed a new major in Science, Technology, and Society, and spent six months in China studying Western medicine in a hospital in Beijing, developing a study on cultural issues in medical science.  I was in China when I got a call from a Pomona biology professor looking for someone with animal experience (me!) who might be interested in living in the land of the polar bears for a while.  That sounded like the coolest thing ever, so I said yes.

Ever since that summer (and several exciting moments with polar bears), I’ve been working in arctic science.  From the first time I saw snow fall, I have never felt so at home.  After college, I received a grant from the Thomas Watson Foundation to travel the Arctic doing photography and experiencing climate change through the lens of communities in Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia.  In Canada, I worked on the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen, where I once strapped into a helicopter and hung upside-down to take photos of ice conditions.  In Greenland, I wintered with a native family on the east coast, and was adopted into a culture experiencing the demise of ice, and their way of life, first-hand.  Back on Svalbard, Norway, I worked with marine biologists on one of the first-ever winter studies on bryozoans (a type of zooplankton), and celebrated Solfestuka, the return of the sun, after 3 months of pure darkness.  Russia found me far away in northern Siberia, in the ruins of a former gulag with an eccentric Russian scientist, riding a Soviet-era tank pretending to be a mammoth.  True story.

The last few years have found me sampling science all over, from a couple more seasons in northern Norway, to working in Germany with microbiologists, and finally to a switch to the North American side of things.  Being especially attracted to the marine sciences, I moved to Cordova, Alaska, to work as a deckhand and field tech, and eventually migrated north to Fairbanks to work as a lab manager for a project on methane release from the permafrost…which sent me hunting for bubbles and climate change all over Alaska.

Nowadays, I work for an awesome company called Polar Field Services, which provides logistics support for research teams heading into cold places.  I’m also wrapping up a Master’s degree in biological oceanography on juvenile salmon feeding behavior (why not add some fish in the mix?).  It’s the perfect combo of science and crazy adventures.  I get to work with cool people and places, learn more about every kind of science you can think of, and help people with my experience living in remote cold places.  I have one extremely fuzzy dog, and one slightly less fuzzy dog, and one moderately fuzzy fiancé.  A career in the northern sciences has brought me closer to nature, adventure, and everything I love!--Laurel McFadden