Polar Careers: Parents' Perspective

At Polar Field Services, we often get the opportunity to talk with principal investigators about their work. Occasionally we'll talk to research assistants and photographers. Almost never do we talk to parents of researchers. This summer was an exception. The parents of Louise Farquharson, a 25-year old post doc with Katey Walter at the University of Alaska, whose research on thermokarst lakes in Alaska takes her to far flung places, took to writing us kind notes, and we struck up a casual correspondence. We loved to hear from them—both Jackie Smith and Gordon Farquharson are friendly, unassuming, and sincere. So sincere, in fact, that we wanted to know more—particularly since they were writing from the rainy streets of London, England. Turns out that Louise grew up near the river Thames, quite a long way from the wilds of Alaska. We wanted to know more about where she came from, and her parents kindly obliged. —Rachel Walker

richardson hway2
richardson hway2

PFS: Louise is clearly intrepid, adventurous, and smart; are you particularly interested in snow/ice/climate?

Jackie: I am not at all intrepid and dislike extremes of temperature!  The weather affects my mood and I always check daily/weekly forecasts.  I love a westerly front which is warm & moist; here in the U.K. we enjoy the Gulf Stream flowing across the Atlantic Ocean, which usually protects us from very harsh weather.  I hate it if it does not rain regularly!  I appreciate living in a temperate climate (with broad-leaved trees).  I believe in the existence of global-warming, and try to live considerately and respectfully with regards to our planet, and the creatures we share it with.

Gordon: I grew up in a country village and spent a lot of time with my cousin on his family's farm. We roamed woodlands and fields, made dams across streams, made bows and arrows and did other boys stuff in all weathers. I enjoyed the country and the effect of weather on it and painted it.

PFS: Where does her sense of adventure come from?

Jackie: This is innate in her, for sure!  From birth, it was as if she was completely sure of her intentions and wants.  She was never timid or hesitant, and I admired her assertiveness. She always had daily outings and family holidays were spent mostly outdoors, in wide open (usually beautiful) landscapes, with plenty of walking, near: rivers, sea, mountains, woods and forests.   As a child she was always ‘busy’, and had a lot of extra-school-curricular.  At Senior School she enjoyed field-trips at the School’s adventure centre in Cumbria (northern UK place of scenic beauty), and as a more senior pupil she was asked to accompany and supervise groups of younger pupils there also.  After completing school she travelled round the world visiting six main countries; I think her main goal was to travel in New Zealand from the far north to southern-most tip.  During university she had the opportunity to study an extra year in the U.S.A, and of course she chose University of Fairbanks, Alaska!  She returned there the following summer and was offered post-graduate studies.  She then worked in London for one year before once again returning to Alaska.  I think her love of beautiful wide-open-spaces, wilderness and sense of freedom has been a substantial attraction, also her passion for geography, and I know that she heartily enjoys the friendships there of many who are like-minded.

Gordon: As a family we took our daughters to the country. Scotland, Wales, Ireland - mainly wild mountainous and coastal places. I think our love of walking in wild landscape must have affected her and developed her love of the natural world. Her teachers from the start were excellent. At senior school she especially enjoyed annual week long trips to the mountainous Lake District hiking with enthusiastic teachers, later becoming a mentor to younger children.

white mount
white mount

PFS:  As a parent, what is it like to have a daughter study in such far flung places?

Jackie: Obviously I miss her company hugely, but am mostly relieved she is doing what she wants to do, and is committed to that, passionately.  I am proud of her tenacity.  And I feel that a ‘successful parent’ is one whose child feels independent and confident for independent living post-adolescence.

Gordon: Louise is happy in her chosen path. It makes me happy too, that she has followed her passion for the natural world, even though she can be far away in wild places.

PFS: What are your concerns with the research and career path Louise has chosen?

Jackie: Although I am anxious that she may be increasing the likelihood of having an accident, and/or be seriously harmed!  I know in reality she is more likely to be run down and killed on the roads here in the UK.   Knowing how robust she is, both physically and emotionally, also helps me remain calm.  I care immensely about the well-being of our planet and its peoples and creatures, and fully endorse Louise’s commitment to these also

PFS: What are you most proud of about your daughter?

Jackie: Her enthusiasm for life, her self-discipline, and for always keeping an open mind concerning the ideas of others.  I am also very impressed and thankful that her chosen work is in a scientific field concerned with investigating some of the serious threats to our planet.

Gordon: Her enthusiastic approach to life.

PFS: Where did Louise grow up; can you describe the neighborhood/suburb?

Jackie: We lived in a first-floor apartment of a large Victorian detached house, in a leafy suburb in south-east London.  At the end of the road, is Blackheath (86 hectare), a big open heath-land very well used.  Nearby is beautiful Royal Greenwich Park, affording good views across London, and the River Thames, as well as the fine Grade 1 listed buildings of: The Maritime Museum, The Royal Meridian Observatory (0° Longitude Meridian), and the Old Royal Naval College. The communities in the neighbourhood are many and varied: multi-ethnic, families, single households, and all ages from very young to very old people.  There are several local schools; the schools Louise attended were all within walking distance.

PFS: Any tips to parents out there on how to raise hearty, adventurous kids?

Jackie: Try to nurture your child’s natural enthusiasm rather than impose your own ideas a lot.  Be attentive and a good listener: value your child and what they tell you.  Have plenty of regular conversations, subtly expanding your child’s awareness and showing respect for their views and initiatives.  Don’t instil your own anxieties onto your child.  Try to influence friendships with trustworthy, positive-minded individuals, and nurture different networks to circle, rather than rely on a few friends from one network (e.g. school-based--children can be quite upsetting towards each other and it is beneficial to have friends from separate ‘networks’).  Enjoy every ‘journey’ rather than only the destination.  Limit television and electronic games.  Teach how to enjoy and appreciate the great ‘outdoors’.  Eat a healthy diet.  Walk whenever you can.

Gordon: Walk young children to school if possible! From the start one of us would take the girls at least half a mile, through Greenwich Park overlooking London and the River Thames in all weathers and changing seasons. Exercise and chat was a great way to start the day together. We had a big garden where the young girls spent hours of unsupervised play.

PFS: What have you learned from Louise as she has pursued this line of research?

Jackie: The Arctic landscape is changing as it warms, and the ice (permafrost) is melting, eventually forming thermokarst lakes.  The trapped methane hydrate, from carbon-dense deposits, warms and leaks through the arctic seabed sediments.  Methane is highly flammable as a gas.  Employed as a quaternary geologist, Louise takes sediment cores from the thermokarst lakes, examining and collecting data to inform climate changes during the past 15 000 years. It seems to me that Louise is involved in cutting-edge research that clarifies evidences of global-warming, which is most startling and of enormous global concern.  But I fear world-wide governments are unable to effectively unite to plan how to alleviate the alarming speed at which the resulting dangers move ever-closer for all life on earth.

Gordon: Science is a team effort and Louise seems to enjoy that as she is very gregarious even though she enjoys the wild. It has made me aware of the amount of greehouse gases locked away in permafrost that could be released if thawed.