woman scientist

in the field

Heading Back to the Ice, 2019

Antarctica is one of the most spectacular places on Earth, in my opinion – to get to the peninsula, I must cross the infamous Drake Passage, a 620 mile (1000 km) journey from the tip of South America. It’s around a two-day sail from the port towns of Punta Arenas (Chile), or Ushuaia (Argentina), to the South Shetland Islands. These islands make up the first stop nearest the peninsula. Some tour operators offer flights across the Drake for those who don’t want to brave the stormy waters and experience ‘the Drake Shake’. Despite being an Oceanographer, I get very seasick. Yet, that hasn’t deterred me from embracing some of the roughest open ocean and exploring all it has to offer.

Map of typical route.

I will be on the peninsula for two trips during the months of January and February – the southern hemisphere’s summer. During this time, it will never truly get dark. Instead there will be a prolonged period of magical twilight, sunset blending into sunrise, that lasts for several hours and makes for excellent photography opportunities. But I’m not here just for the photos.

I will first be onboard Antarctica 21’s Ocean Nova as Scientist and Lecturer conducting the FjordPhyto Citizen Science project I designed with my advisor, Dr. Maria Vernet, and polar guide experts Bob Gilmore and Annette Bombosch of the Polar Collective. The second trip, I will be onboard the Akademik Ioffe with Cheesemans’ Safaris. I will be coordinating citizen science projects as well as running FjordPhyto. This trip will have a scientific focus on marine mammals, in partnership with the American Cetacean Society.

Ocean Nova

When I first visited Antarctica in 2013 (McMurdo Station/Ross Sea), I was immediately struck by the lunar landscape, absence of any vegetation, and a looming active volcano called Mt. Erebus. I had no idea Antarctica had such mountainous topography! In my mind, it was a continent of flat white nothingness. In the interior – on the ~2.5 km thick ice cap – it is! But along the coast, it’s a strikingly magical sight with a landscape made of snow-topped mountains and jutting black rock rising straight from the ocean. The mountains along the peninsula were once a chain of volcanoes active millions and millions of years ago. Today, the one remaining active volcano is called Deception Island, which last erupted in 1970. The caldera left behind makes an excellent landing site for tourism.

In December 2017, I had another chance to visit Antarctica, this time to the peninsula, and was intoxicated by the beauty of thousands of snowy islands and coastal fjords speckled by an abundance of penguins, seals, and humpback whales. The deeply indented fjords resemble those of Norway, Alaska or southern Chile. When the sea-ice melts during the summer, routes open allowing ships to pass through the towering cliffs and channels. When I’m on any journey, my experience is always enhanced by an understanding of the region’s geography and biology. Maybe that’s why I became a scientist!

Lonely Planet

Antarctica is politically defined as land south of 60°S, but the physical oceanographic boundary of water masses located at the Polar Front makes a better demarcation for understanding the characteristics seen along the Antarctic Peninsula. The Southern Ocean encircles the continent and where cold water from Antarctica meets the relatively warmer waters of northerly oceans, there is a sudden change in surface temperatures ~3-6°F (2-3°C). This zone acts like a boundary isolating Antarctica. This isolation explains why Antarctica is much colder than the Arctic and why human discovery occurred relatively recently.

Approximate positions of the Antarctic Treaty CCAMLR boundary, Antarctica.gov.au (left) and polar front and the subtropical convergence (right), which are the northern bounds of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic water, respectively. Ceridwen Fraser, The Conversation.

Ancient Greek geographers had hypothesized there to be a southern continent to counterbalance Arctic lands. The name Antarctica derives from the Greek meaning ‘opposite the Arctic’.

Attempts to search for the southern continent occurred as early as 1699 by Edmond Halley and was not reached again until James Cook’s circumnavigation of the Southern Ocean in 1772 – 75. He suspected, from all the icebergs he encountered, that there must be a source further south. In 1819 William Smith sailed far enough to make first sighting of South Shetland Islands. In 1820 multiple explorers (Palmer, Bellingshausen, Lazarev) officially set sight on the mainland.

Love these old maps

This remote continent holds a fascinating history of human exploration with pioneering voyages of bravery and hardship. However, Antarctica is not without its dark side. Early whalers and sealers hunted its resources to near extinction in the 1800s removing nearly all seals and ~2.9 million whales from the Southern hemisphere. This caused a significant shift in the ecosystem, that since has not rebounded to its original state.

The 1900s marked a more positive ‘Heroic Age of Exploration’ through expeditions to the South Pole along with many scientific endeavors. Today’s modern research stations demonstrate the importance of the area to science, providing a natural laboratory setting for scientists who spend their time researching Antarctica’s role in the Earth’s systems.

Relatively recently in 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed to protect Antarctica and it still remains one of the most remote and pristine places on the planet. Only scientific and peaceful activities (including tourism and regulated fishing) are allowed and I’m so excited to be down here with the ability to involve passengers in my research through the FjordPhyto citizen science project and to be a part of the education team sharing the knowledge of this place first hand.

Photo: Allison Cusick

Stay tuned for more posts to come! Thanks for reading, and please share with your friends.

Follow along at www.fjordphyto.org and on social media at @FjordPhyto and @WomanScientist

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Expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula

Last year, I had been invited onboard as Guest Scientist by Antarctica21 to oversee the FjordPhyto citizen science project I developed with Dr. Maria Vernet at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and to give science lectures with the Expedition Staff each evening. Check out the short mini documentary to see what we were up to!

At the beginning of December 2017, I flew down to Ushuaia, Argentina: the last city in South America, the gateway port to Antarctica.

I boarded the MS Hebridean Sky, a 296-foot cruise ship, and was warmly welcomed by Polar Guide Staff Bob Gilmore and Annette Bombosch (FjordPhyto champions and co-founders of the Polar Citizen Science Collective).

During the month I was on board, we launched twelve citizen science zodiac cruises visiting seven different fjords along the peninsula. You can check out some photos from that trip @womanscientist or @fjordphyto on Instagram! 

Locations where we sampled phytoplankton

With the quick five-day turnaround schedule, this allowed us to sample some of the same fjords repeatedly during the month, capturing changes from week to week.

Each science zodiac ride included six to nine passengers eager to participate. For the month I was on board, that means 72–108 passengers directly assisted in gathering data with FjordPhyto! Those who were not on the citizen science zodiac trips were still able to learn about the project through the evening recap presentations. We were excited to receive extremely positive feedback from the people who participated.

Allison captures a selfie with the FjordPhyto citizen science crew.

The samples collected by FjordPhyto citizen scientists contribute to the PhD thesis work of myself and graduate student Martina Mascioni in Argentina. We are trying to understand how polar phytoplankton are influenced by melting glaciers within fjords along the peninsula. Nearly 87% of the glaciers along the peninsula are in retreat (Cook et al., 2005, 2016) and the west Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming regions in the world. As climate change touches every place in the world, partnering with the tourism industry can help us look over larger geographical areas through a longer sampling season, seeing seasonal changes from November through March.  

We spent a memorable 29-days traveling the Antarctic Peninsula sharing the wonders of this wild place with over 400 passengers in total. Having the opportunity to see the project in action provided extremely valuable perspective on what tour operators, staff, and passengers experience while in the field.

Antarctica is the only continent – set aside by the Antarctic Treaty – where peaceful and scientific endeavors take place. To be able to include the tourism industry in the legacy of polar research provides a powerful way to educate, involve, and share science with the public! 

We all go home having a sense of awe and respect for this region. We become Antarctic Ambassadors. 

You can get more updates about this project at www.fjordphyto.org and if you want to support the work we are doing with the tourism industry in the polar regions take a look at our crowdfunding campaign and share it with your friends and family! We really appreciate your support! 

I want to thank the National Science Foundation for providing funding and travel support to Ushuaia, and Antarctica21 for inviting me onboard as Guest Scientist. I also want to thank my advisor Dr. Maria Vernet, Martina Mascioni, and all of the polar staff and citizen scientists for their enthusiasm and participation in FjordPhyto! 

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Ice melted the heart of Mariama Dryak

I first heard of Mariama Dryak when I responded to a call from US APECS for early career researchers to write a piece for their new blog focused on science communication.  We were to write a post that related to an individual researchers’ science communication experiences (e.g. science communication experiences, outcomes, advice for science communicators, what worked/didn’t work) to other young scientists, and include details on what we think makes communication experiences effective, exciting and inclusive. You can check out the piece I wrote here on “Practicing your way to effective science communication“. This started my email-based connection with Mariama.

When I traveled to the Polar2018 conference in Switzerland June 2018, I was fortunate to meet Mariama in person! We had a lovely chat and brainstorming session and I immediately asked if she would do an interview. Her story is so inspiring, I wanted to share it with you all.


What is your earliest memory of being hooked by science?

I’ve always been a curious person, and would incessantly ask my parents questions as a child, but ‘science’ for one reason or another invariably seemed to intimidate me, and was not a language I understood naturally. So for my youth, I shied away from the concept of science, and instead pursued things that came naturally to me: reading, writing and history. However, in my final year of high school I took a class entitled ‘Wisconsin History’, taught by Mr. Isaac Walters, in which we learned about everything from the more recent settlement of Wisconsin to the much longer term glacial history of our landscape–and I was hooked.

That concept, the concept that these MASSIVE bodies of ice could carve the magnificent landscape that we see today, made me fall deeply in love with and become fascinated by glaciers.

Through many other experiences I grew to appreciate studying them in a wide variety of ways, but I would now call myself a physical scientist and an aspiring physical glaciologist.

What did you study during your undergrad?

Physical geography and archaeology

Did you always know what you wanted to study before beginning?

Not really. I went to university thinking I was going to come out the other end an archaeologist, but became even more enamored with glaciers and their responses to climate change, as well as other landscape processes during an intro to physical geography course, and thus shifted my academic focus to studying physical geography as well.

The real aha [I know what I want to study] moment came to me during an internship with the National Park Service in 2015, where we were surveying the coast of northwest Alaska for cultural resources and assessing site vulnerability to potential loss from coastal erosion.

Although I loved the archaeological work I was doing, I kept getting hung up on the fact that erosion was wiping these sites out in the first place, due to increased erosion from higher storm intensity along the northwest Alaskan coasts, which has been suggested to be caused in part by anthropogenic climate change. I felt strongly that what really needed to happen was for humans to not cause these problems in the first place, and felt drawn to study the physical processes governing the landscape.

UMaine women field team in the North Cascades, where we were snow probing to see how thick the snow pack was on the glacier.

What inspired you to become a scientist?

There are so many things we still don’t know about this incredible planet and we are changing it with every passing second. I feel drawn to learn as much as I can about it before some of its resources (like the glaciers I am so very taken by) are gone. Science is an incredible study structure through which to do this, and encourages a valuable objectivity not found in very many other practices.

Has your work allowed you to travel (and if yes, where have you gone)?

Yes! Oh, I have been so fortunate. My undergraduate studies took me to some incredible places in Europe, where I was able to do hands-on learning in field locations in Portugal, the Isle of Skye (Scotland), the Lake District (England) and Iceland. I spent just under a month in southern Iceland for my undergraduate thesis, where I studied the retreat of Steinsholtsjokull, since the end of the Little Ice Age (~1850AD). My travels in graduate school have taken me to Norway, Switzerland, the North Cascades (WA) and the United Kingdom.

Mapping glacier extent using moraines (glacial landforms deposited at the ends of glaciers) in the foreland of Steinsholtsjӧkull, Iceland for my undergraduate dissertation.

Iceland glacier

Lower Curtis Glacier, North Cascades

North Cascades Glacier Climate Project (this summer), where we measured the mass balance (overall ‘health’) of glaciers across the whole North Cascades.

What is your favorite thing/what keeps it fun for you when it gets hard?

Fueled by conducting valuable research, communicating that research to the public and making the earth sciences accessible to all (no matter the background).

Was there any one person that inspired you?

Not one. So many.

What do you envision for your future research or career?

At the moment I think I want to teach and advise in the earth sciences at a smaller university or college that allows me to interact with students to show them how amazing our natural world is, encourage them to think critically and interact with natural resources. I want to be an advocate for encouraging diversity of backgrounds, people and thought within the earth sciences, and to provide opportunities for involvement, education and travel for those who might not otherwise have access to them.

You are very involved in APECS and have your own Podcast! Tell us more!

Yes, in my spare time I edit a blog I launched called ‘Let’s Do Something BIG.’ where our writers discuss different topics related to environmental advocacy. 

I am also currently the co-chair for the United States Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (USAPECS), which is an excellent resource for any early career scientists who work in polar regions. In general getting involved with, or even just signed up to the email-list of, APECS is a good way to learn about early career opportunities (funding, events, etc.) and to learn valuable leadership and science communication skills.

I am in the process of developing content for a podcast featuring conversations with inspiring, motivated women and underrepresented people in the earth, ocean and environmental sciences. Details and name for the podcast are to be announced (I know, not very helpful), but will be announced on ‘Let’s Do Something BIG.’ and my Twitter. You can find me at @ArcticChanges on Twitter!

Huge thank you to Mariama for the interview! We wish you the best of luck in your future research.

Please feel free to share this inspirational interview with others!  Thank you all for reading and following Woman Scientist. Share this:
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Sundowners and Bushman Solutions. Part 4 – Exploring the Okavango Delta

Sundowners. A ritual I learned in Africa and would like to establish in my “regular” life back home. The sundowner involves stopping to enjoy an alcoholic beverage during sunset. Sundowners allow us to reflect on the day’s adventures and feast our eyes on the painted African skies.

It was our last day at the Savuti camp and tomorrow we were to fly to the  Linyati region, to Vumbura camp, in the heart of the Okavango delta.

If you missed the post about how I was drawn to this epic region of the world and what happened before this post, catch up here and then with part 1 , part 2 , and part 3.

We boarded the plane, a tiny turbo prop, and fears of crashing immediately flooded my mind. I had always heard bush planes go down easily, but now was not the time to start thinking of that. Our pilot was a woman named Micaela. She assured us we would arrive safely, despite the thunderhead clouds forming on the horizon. Eventually the rain became so thick, we had to make an emergency landing at Great Plains. Ross and Ariel greeted us, soaking wet, and offered us umbrellas to the cabin. We drank tea and chatted while waiting out the storm.

An hour later, the weather let up and we once again flew, making it to camp. Vumbura was built to sit up above the wetland. Here I met Malaki, an amazing effervescent woman who used to be in the police force, but had switched her career to tourism.

The place was amazing. Not only were we now in the heart of the Delta, but we were spoiled with the beauty of the camp. We immediately set down our bags and hopped in the Land Rover for a ride.

Our guide’s name was Sam. Sam was born in the delta. He had lost his dad in 1968 and crossed the delta river with his mom. His brother went to work in the South African gold mines but wanted a better life for his brother. He encouraged Sam to study and look into tourism. Sam got a job as a guide with Wilderness Safaris and has been there for over a decade.

Our drive took us to a tree where a young leopard lay. We were enjoying the scene quietly when the radio cracked on to alert us one of the other trucks had gotten stuck and needed back up. We decided we would go for the rescue! After our experience getting stuck in a watering hole with a dead hippo, we were eager to see what predicament this group got themselves into.

Because it was the rainy season, the ground had become very soft in certain parts. A lot of the Mopani trees held the ground together, but occasionally the truck wheels would get sucked under. The guide tried using sticks to leverage the wheel out of the mud. Nothing seemed to work. Eventually using straps and more logs and sticks, the truck was released and the group could go on their way. The Bushman Solution worked!

During the debacle, we met a lovely woman named Ruth. She’s an inspiring world traveler and retired lawyer. Ruth and her sister sat in the truck with us and we chatted about our adventures thus far and how exciting it was to be in Africa.  I learned Ruth was from San Diego, where I am currently living, and we exchanged information for our return to the US. It has been lovely getting to know Ruth better in Southern California! Later that evening, we learned the group managed to see that young leopard make a kill and drag it into a tree to feast.

One morning, we ventured out to have a water-based adventure. The delta was so clear, Sam said we could drink straight from it! And so I did. We rode in a dugout canoe through the reeds. Our guide told us of the medicinal uses of plants within the delta. We learned of the culture of the bushman, and the natural history of the region.

It was a spectacular way to experience such a gem of nature. Additionally spectacular, was the lodging accommodations of the camp! This place was built to enjoy the delta from comfort. Normally I enjoy simple things like camping in the dirt, but I will admit its nice to live in luxury! Check this place out!

And of course, words can’t ever describe what pictures can … so here are some shots of the wildlife we saw. Pretty good for the rainy season!

Just driving right over those Mopani trees!

Time for a coffee!

After a couple of days, my mom and I left our glamorous accommodations and the splendor of Botswana’s Okavango Delta and headed to Zimbabwe where more adventure awaited.

Stay tuned for the next story of broken legs in Victoria Falls and attempts to tag a wild Painted Dog pack with Dr. Rassmussen .


This story ends here! If you’d like to keep reading, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter and get immediate updates delivered to your inbox. For stories earlier in the trip, read part 1 , part 2 , and part 3.

As always, please share Woman Scientist with anyone you think may feel inspired!

Thanks for reading.


All photos taken by Allison Lee and Cynthia Cusick. Information obtained through personal conversation with Wilderness Safari guides. Share this:
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Exploring unknowns with Tammy Russell

I always find the moment surreal when you finally meet someone in person whom you’ve been following on social media for years. Tammy Russell and I had “known” each other on Instagram for a while, connected by our love for Antarctica and doing science in the field. We had both also volunteered for a SCAR campaign to blast Wikipedia with profiles of accomplished female researchers working in Antarctica. I’m happy to report the team uploaded over 150 biographies of female scientists to Wikipedia in 2016!

We had exchanged a few messages discussing our winding “late-bloomer” career paths through science, but I never thought I would have the chance to meet Tammy in person. Then, one day on Instagram, I saw that she had been invited to the Open House for prospective graduate students at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (the same school I was currently attending)! Open house is an overwhelmingly exciting time in a graduate students life and I am happy to report, Tammy will be joining the PhD cohorts at SIO this year!

I’m excited to share Tammy’s interview with you all:

What is your earliest memory of being hooked by science?

I grew up on a small farm and was always drawn to nature. I spent as much time as possible outside; catching lizards, climbing trees and watching the stars. I knew from a young age I wanted to work in science, whether that was with animals or up in space. I was really obsessed with frontiers, and for much of my childhood I thought I would be the first person on Mars. That desire to explore unknowns really cultivated a deep curiosity for the world and led to my interest in exploring the oceans and Antarctica. When I was in junior high, I attended camp at the Catalina Island Marine Institute (CIMI), and it was the first time I was exposed to marine biology and hands-on science. At CIMI, I first snorkeled, did dissections and looked under a microscope. I think that experience really solidified my motivation to pursue a scientific career.

Did you know what you wanted to study before beginning your undergraduate degree?

I knew I wanted to get a degree in Biology, and after traveling a bit after high school, I started my Bachelor’s degree at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. I did two field projects there, both on the impacts of invasive mammals on native species. These were fantastic experiences. After a couple of years there, I returned to the States, with my intent on returning and finishing my degree. But I ended up taking a very winding path and it took me many years to eventually be able to return to college. I restarted my degree at Mt. San Jacinto College (MSJC), in Southern California. After a couple years at MSJC, I was able to transfer to University of California, Santa Cruz, where I just finished my Bachelor’s in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

What was your first science-related job?

Because I have been in school for such a long time, most of the field work and research I have done has been through internships and volunteering. But I have always tried to maintain animal-related jobs: an animal hospital, city animal shelter, a reptile pet store, where I did husbandry, as well as educational presentations. I am currently a naturalist on a whale watching boat in Moss Landing, CA.

Where have you traveled with work in the field?

At UCSC, I was involved in Dan Costa’s Lab, working with northern elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park. Although just north of Santa Cruz, it is another world. We went out each week to resight tags on the seals to monitor when animals were returning and how long they were staying. We also would attach and remove satellite tags and other instruments, such as accelerometers or cameras, which was always an amazing experience getting to be so close to these massive animals!

I also did an internship, and currently still volunteer, for the nonprofit, Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, where I have been fortunate enough to work on seabird population studies out on Año Nuevo Island. The island is strange and wonderful place. It was once home to a light tower and large home for the light tower keepers and their families, but now it has been completely taken back by the animals and is currently an important breeding location for many seabirds.

Through UCSC, I also did a field course in Sitka, Alaska. I really wanted to use the experience to try something completely different, so my field partner and I studied the effect of light levels on the red alga, Constantinea, with a combination of field observation and lab experiment. Working up in Alaskan waters in winter was truly an incredible experience (and I really valued my drivesuit!).

I am a NOAA Hollings Scholar, which allowed me to spend last summer on Oahu, Hawaii, working on the demographic distribution of black-footed albatross that are incidentally caught by longline fisheries. There, I got to learn about commercial fishing, mitigation measures to reduce bycatch and the fishery management process, as well as my research work.

What inspired you to become a scientist and work in polar regions? 

When I returned to college, I had a clear idea of the kind of work that I wanted to do: I wanted to study seabirds. As I have always been drawn to Antarctica, when I started thinking about the kind of research that I wanted to pursue, my interests were inevitably drawn there. When I first started at MSJC, I did not have a lot of confidence in myself. I knew I needed to transfer from there and get my Bachelor’s, but I hadn’t really considered how to get to the research that I wanted. I fortunately met several encouraging mentors at MSJC and had an amazing support system: my husband and my mom.

I soon found myself taking on more: pursuing undergraduate research, joining honors programs, and organizing events, like birds watching trips and a TEDx event! I was really encouraged and allowed to really spread my wings at that college. The first project I completed there was on the history of women working in Antarctica and ended up presenting it at an honors conference at UC Irvine.

While at MSJC, I had tried to stay on top of research that was going on in Antarctica, and organizations that are involved in the southern region, which led me to volunteer for SCAR in helping write Wikipedia pages on women that had worked on Antarctic research, and to attend the 80th anniversary for the American Polar Society. It was there, where I got to meet people I had looked up to in conservation, breaking boundaries and research, including Sylvia Earle, Claire Parkinson and David Ainley. Meeting these, and other researchers, really corrected the image I had of scientists, and made it much more realistic for me.

Before starting at UCSC, I volunteered for a number of nonprofit and government groups doing field and lab research. I valued what I was able to learn from these experiences, but I also found that I wanted to be the one who organized the projects, I wanted to have a say.

Between these experiences and finding that the people doing the kind of research that I wanted to do all had PhDs, really made me decide that I should pursue a PhD, and that it would allow me the opportunity to do research, but also to ask the questions and develop projects to answer them.

What are some inspirational materials you’ve used along the way?

I have a notebook that I write down potential research questions, quotes, trends that I’ve observed, doodles, etc. When I feel stuck I read through it. Some entries are really funny, some ideas are totally unrealistic, but going through it always gets me thinking.

Do you have a motto you live by?

Keep throwing yourself out there at new opportunities, no matter how unrealistic they seem, some are bound to work out.

What do you envision for your future (big or small)?

Well, I’m getting ready to start at Scripps Institution of Oceanography to pursue a PhD in Biological Oceanography. It still feels unreal, it’s beyond what I could envision happening to me, so I can’t imagine where my research at Scripps will take me or where I’ll find myself afterwards! No matter what I end up doing, as long as I’m still able to be involved in research, asking big questions and attempting to answer them, then I’ll be happy!

Huge thank you to Tammy for the interview and for her entrance into Scripps Institution of Oceanography! We wish you the best of luck in your future research.

To see more photos of Tammy in the field, head over to the Feature Album on Woman Scientist Facebook page.

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Please feel free to share this inspirational interview with others!  Thank you all for reading and following Woman Scientist.

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Women in Polar Tourism

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators–or IAATO–founded in 1991, advocates and promotes the practice of safe and environmentally responsible travel to Antarctica.

I first joined this community in 2017, attending the AECO/IAATO Polar Field Staff Conference to pitch the FjordPhyto Citizen Science project.  This group of people amazed me with their strength and camaraderie, and love for not only Antarctica, but all wild places on Earth.

During the week leading up to International Women’s Day (2 – 8 March) IAATO is celebrating Antarctic women who lead by example, are advocates for change and are instrumental in delivering our mission of safe, environmentally responsible polar travel.

I am honored to have been asked to do a Question & Answer session as one of their features on polar scientists involved with tourism.

Check out the full 4-page read here:

Polar women 2018 – Alison Lee


You can follow #polarwomen on Twitter and Instagram and read more amazing profiles from scientists and educators to leaders and conservationists  here. Share this:
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Distracted from Science by Science

I am sitting in my office, trying to write a report on Salps for my Zooplankton graduate class. While I was scouring the YouTube world for Salp videos, I came across a short 3-minute feature by Alex Dainis of Bite Sci-zed.

Thirty minutes have now gone by and I am *still* watching her video reels. If you haven’t heard of her, subscribe; I just did!

… and now …

…I’ve gotta get back to writing my Salp report!

Never heard of Salps? Let Alex explain them to you in this video:

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Allison Lee: Polar Phytoplankton PhD Student

A big thanks to Allison Albritton (formerly Randolph) for the interview on the Ocean Allison podcast before my trip down to Antarctica.

Episode #54, Allison Lee: Phytoplankton PhD Student.


Allison Lee is a biological oceanography PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, working to bring phytoplankton research to the world of Citizen Science in the Arctic and the Antarctic. In this episode we discuss her experience working in a lab setting, her inspiring blog ‘Woman Scientist’, her passion for phytoplankton research, and more.

Allison just completed a field season in Antarctica aboard the Hebridean Sky, launching her FjordPhyto Citizen Science project with willing and excited passengers. The beginning of this story was featured in the San Diego Tribune.   During the 2017 – 2018 Antarctic summer, citizen scientists from multiple tour ships will be collecting samples which contribute to current climate research.

If you’re interested to learn more about the Citizen Science Project – FjordPhyto – in Antarctica, follow along on the FjordPhyto website, Instagram, and Facebook.

Visit Allison Lee’s website womanscientist.com and follow her on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Allison Albritton is an ocean advocate, herself, sharing stories of positive change for the ocean. If you’d like to learn more about Allison Albritton, read the Woman Scientist interview here. Share this:
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Life of a Desert Field Scientist – Mindi Lehew

Mindi Lehew is an Environmental Scientist working for the US Forest Service. She has been hiking the Sonoran Desert and Coronado National Forest for more than six years and absolutely loves it.

Check out the video below where Mindi explains the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, the unique desert ecosystems, including the iconic Saguaro cactus, and her work as a field scientist.

Keep reading to learn more about how Mindi first became interested in science.

What is your earliest memory of being hooked by science?

Growing up in a small town, playing in nature was my every day adventure. At the time, I didn’t understand that was the beginnings of scientific exploration and a lifelong conservation ethic. I spent my childhood in the desert, hiking with my dad or riding my horse with my mom. Our family spent a few weeks every summer visiting different national parks.  I remember carrying around a notepad in Yellowstone National Park taking detailed notes and keeping a count of every plant and animal species I encountered. I was probably 10 years old at the time, but I still have the little notebook today, and I know now that was field science at its finest!

What did you think a scientist did before you became one?

I thought all scientists worked in a lab and wore a white coat. It wasn’t until I started college that I realized you could make a career out of studying the environment (and get paid to play outdoors!). Now I know scientists also wear cargo shorts and hiking boots!

What keeps it fun?

I never get tired of the landscapes. Since I was little, I’ve always been humbled by nature and the evolution of our planet and all the species that exist on it. Nothing beats the feeling of summiting a peak and being rewarded with a panoramic view for hundreds of miles in all directions. As an environmental scientist and public land manager, it’s rewarding to know I play a small role in protecting those natural places.

Is there anyone that inspired you? 

My dad! He is a pharmacist by profession, but a conservationist at heart. We always joke that we’re both scientists, the only difference is that he helps the people and I help the planet. For as long as I can remember, he’s had one mantra: leave this earth a better place than it was when you got here. He inspired me to make that mantra my life’s mission!

Let’s learn more about the region: 

Desert Range

This region of Arizona, California, and Baja hosts a convergence of many types of desert ecosystems that span from Mexico all the way up into the Rocky Mountains.

Saguaro Cactus 

The Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) live on rocky terrain and do not occur anywhere else in the world. Many people mistakenly think the tall cactus in Baja are Saguaros, but they are actually look-alike cactus called Cardón (Pachycereus pringlei). The Cardón resembles the Saguaro in growth, but can grow to be much more massive, and is not as frost tolerant as the Saguaro.

The average lifespan for a Saguaro cactus is about 200 years. As they grow taller they branch arms and extend their radial root system. Even though the root system is very shallow for such a tall, heavy plant, it provides a sturdy base allowing the cactus to absorb water from the occasional desert downpours.

I had always thought, if lost in the desert, I could survive by drinking water from the cactus tissue. As if cactus were giant rain barrels storing an oasis of refreshment.  I surely would have died! It turns out succulents create toxic products from photosynthesis including Malic Acid and Oxalic Acid. If ingested, Oxalic Acid combines with calcium in our bodies to produce calcium oxalates which are harmful to our kidneys. While a human may be able to survive off small amounts, ultimately dehydration would take over.

Mindi shows us there are some edible parts to the cactus; She delicately plucks a barrel cactus fruit and gives us a taste. Sour!  Like a granny smith apple.

Thank you for taking us through your kind of desert Mindi Lehew!

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Writing Your Dreams into Realities

They say those who write down their goals and dreams have a higher success rate of turning them into realities.

I recently found a very artistic goal book I had made in 2001, sixteen years ago, during my 11th grade English class. Thank you to Mrs. E for giving us time in class to create these visions! Flipping through the pages, I realized that a lot of the goals I had written down, I have now accomplished. You can also tell which song was popular at that time…

“Watch a sunset in Africa.” In 2014, I traveled to South Africa co-leading a group of undergraduate students on a Big Cat Research trip.  I made sure to watch every sunrise and every sunset, imprinting the experience in my mind. I was able to travel back to Africa at the end of 2016, this time watching sunsets in Botswana and Zimbabwe (look for future posts to come).

“Swing on a vine in the rainforest.” I have this strange obsession with the rainforest. I’m not sure if it comes from gazing at all the National Geographic magazine spreads of the Amazon canopy, the film documentaries I watched as a kid, or from my visits to the Rainforest Exhibit in the Woodland Park Zoo. I remember the day I arrived in the Amazon and reached the summit of a hike I did near Aguas Calientes in Peru. My heart fluttered as I looked out over the canopy. I’m here! I’m seeing this in real life.  I can’t believe it. I’ve been to the Peruvian rainforest a number of times now as a tourist and as a volunteer biologist with Earthwatch and the Tambopata Macaw Project. On a regular basis, I daydream of the soonest time I will be able to return. I find it interesting I’m on the path to becoming a polar oceanographer, because I’ve always had a vision of myself as a rainforest biologist.

“Jump off a tall cliff into water.” Why did I want to jump off a tall cliff?! I have no idea. After college I traveled Europe with my best buddy Kristina Ciari (she hosts an awesome blog called An Adventurous Life and works for The Mountaineers). We did one of those canyoning adventures out of Bern, Switzerland and at one point had to jump off a cliff into a narrow section of the river. Terrifying to say the least. I hesitated before my jump and got reprimanded by the guide. “YOU JUST HAVE TO JUMP!” he said, “Do NOT overthink this. Now, GO!” It really is a life metaphor if you think about it.  Years later, she and I visited Smith Rock near Bend, Oregon for a climbing trip and found this beautifully tall cliff. The guide’s words still rang in my ears, “Now, GO!” We all jumped 30 feet down into a wide calm river. Some of us came up with nose bleeds. I luckily did not.  But I think I cured my desire for jumping off tall things.

“Scuba dive in exotic waters.” I grew up in Washington’s Puget Sound. A beautiful location for diving. However, scuba is an incredibly expensive hobby and I never found the means to get in to the activity until 2013 when I finally had saved enough cash to get my Open Water Certificate. I spent the next two years working to get certified in Advanced Open Water, then Dry Suit, and Rescue Diver. My progress stalled when it came time to buy my own equipment. I couldn’t pass that next financial hurdle. One day, I was talking to a science colleague while working in the lab, and he said that he got funded to dive during his graduate program. I vowed to myself that if I ever went to graduate school I would find a way to dive for science. When I found out I was going to be attending Scripps Institution of Oceanography for my Master of Advanced Studies degree, I immediately signed up for the Scientific Diving course. I then spent my loan money on nearly $3000 worth (probably more) of gear so that I could be independent of a rental shop whenever I wanted to dive. I have yet to dive in exotic tropical waters, but I did manage to snorkel in the frigid 2°C Silfra fissure of Iceland.  Some day I do plan to dive in the polar oceans, namely Antarctica. Because I’ve already written it down, I know it will happen!

“Stay in an igloo at the poles and watch the Aurora Borealis.” Ok, so the igloo part hasn’t happened yet but I have made it near to both poles and seen the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and Aurora Australis (Southern Lights). In 2013, I was sent to Antarctica aboard an icebreaker for a two month research expedition. During one of the nights, we all went on deck to gaze at the Southern Lights. Dazzling ribbons of green, electrifying the sky.  The only time I have seen the Northern Lights occurred while I was in Seattle, funnily enough, about 14 years ago. One evening I was driving home from college around midnight and I saw funny clouds moving high in the sky. As I got closer to my house I realized those funny clouds were the Aurora Borealis and I raced inside to wake my parents. They ran out, mom in a nightgown, dad in his flannel pajama set. We all gazed up as the green lights danced above us, flickering, sizzling, then moved out of sight. It was magical. Seeing the full curtain of  blues, greens, purples, and pinks — from an igloo — is still on my To-Do List.

“Walk the wall of China.” This still needs to be accomplished!  Asia has been a region of the world I haven’t devoted much time. Malaysia was the first international country I visited back at the ripe age of 15. We traveled to Kuala Lumpur and to the small island of Penang. Growing up, our family hosted over 25 Japanese exchange students, so I have every reason to plan a trip to this side of the world.

I knew at a young age I was an adventurer. I have that Wanderlust. That Travel Gene. I have visited 35 countries and all 7 continents. I had no idea at the time of my 11th grade English class assignment, that I would actually end up traveling the world, for curiosity and for science, fulfilling the goals I had written down in that little book.

I’ve been writing goals ever since, many more of which have come true. I have dozens of notebooks and journals scattered about my room.

Apparently, if you just *think* about your goals and dreams, its not enough to make them real. Dreaming and imagination occur in the right hemisphere of the brain. Writing taps into the power of your left hemisphere, or logic-based side of the brain. When you operate the two together, you send your consciousness a signal that says,  “I want this, and I mean it!” Throughout time, its as if your subconscious mind then orchestrates those visions into realities.

Seeing this book, and reflecting on the accomplishments I’ve made over the past 16 years, I’m convinced I need to keep writing down those dreams and goals so that some day they become reality!

What are the dreams and goals you have written down wondering if they would ever be achieved? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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