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A Journey to the Arctic

Pomona student Allison Bailey on a research trip in the Arctic

Allison Bailey '07 studies a seabird in the Arctic. Opportunities for student research, conducted near and far, are plentiful at Pomona.

Professor Nina Karnovsky and student Allison Bailey

Biology Professor Nina Karnovsky and student Allison Bailey work together in the Arctic.

Nina Karnovsky, an associate professor of biology, has been traveling to the Arctic since 1997 to study seabirds. For the past two summers, she has taken a Pomona student along on her summer research expeditions.

The Research Project

Currents of Change: How will the Feeding Ecology of the Little Auk (Alle Alle) Change with Global Climate Change

The Location

The Polish Polar Station, Polar Bear Bay, Hornsund Fjord, Spitsbergen Island, Norway

Allison Bailey '07, a biology major, was the latest field assistant to spend four weeks at the Polish Polar Station.

Bailey: I grew up in Livermore, home to a nuclear lab, wine grapes and cowboys. My dad, who is a high school biology teacher, got me interested in the natural world by taking me hiking and on camping trips to Yosemite. I also had an excellent AP bio teacher in high school.

Karnovsky: I was not at all interested in science and even petitioned out of my science classes when I was at Wesleyan. My epiphany came after I graduated, when I came to California and got at job at Point Reyes Bird Observatory teaching kids about birds. I fell in love with research and started taking seasonal jobs, studying Goshawks in the Grand Canyon, elephant seals on the Farallon Islands and sea turtles in Hawaii. Ten years ago, I started working in the Arctic, which is where I did the research for my Ph.D.

B: I grew up hearing about the close relationships that my grandparents (professors at Scripps and Pomona) had with their students— enjoying discussions, having dinners for students at their house, keeping in contact with their advisees after graduation. I came here because I wanted to have that same kind of academic interaction. After my sophomore year, I spent part of the summer studying birds in the Eastern Sierras with Professor Levin [Rachel Levin, associate professor of biology]. Then I took a vertebrate biology course from Professor Karnovsky before heading to South Africa for my semester abroad. I was in South Africa, sitting in this little Internet café in the heat of the summer, when I got an e-mail from her asking me to be her research assistant. I was ecstatic. I didn’t have to think twice about accepting the job.

K: I could see Allison had the qualities I look for in a field assistant. She was enthusiastic, easy to get along with, and good at designing projects—I have students in all my classes design their own fieldwork and carry it out. I thought she’d be a great candidate and I was right.

Getting There

K: We flew from California to Newark to Oslo to the northern tip of Norway. Then it was on to Longyearbyen and a two-day boat trip down to the Polish Polar Station.

B: There are about 25 people at the station in the summer, 10 in the winter. While we were there, people were coming and going – scientists from Belgium and Norway, Spanish glaciologists. Most of the researchers are from Poland.

K: One of the things I love about polar research is that it’s so international. That’s another reason I chose Allison because I knew she would enjoy the social part of the experience because she was making the most of her study abroad experience in South Africa.

The Research

K: When I went to the Antarctic in 1992 I realized how any change in the food web is quickly transmitted to birds. They’re responsive to changes in ice conditions and warming, and that changes their behavior, which is something we can measure.

B: Because little auks eat plankton, they’re good indicators of what’s happening in the ocean. What’s cool about the place where we were is that there are two currents. In addition to being different temperatures, they have different types of plankton. When there’s a lot of warm water and just a slice of cold, the little auks mostly feed on the small plankton. When the cold current dominates, you get a lot of energy-rich prey. We have data for several years on where the currents are, where the zooplankton are and what the currents are doing.

K: With such a short-term study we haven’t measured huge declines in productivity, but one of the things we’re doing is comparing our colony, which has a lot of warm water around it, to another colony in Greenland—same species of bird— surrounded by a lot of cold water.

B: Capturing the chicks and adult birds for measurements doesn’t require any special techniques. The chicks nest in rock crevices and you have to just reach in and grab them. The adults, which look like small penguins but can fly, require a net.

K: It’s daylight all the time when we’re there so we have to keep working because the birds don’t stop. A lot of people have a romanticized idea of what field research will be like. It takes a lot of perseverance – conditions can be really uncomfortable and animals don’t behave like you think they might. Having this experience while you’re an undergraduate helps when you need to make a decision about whether to go to grad school in an area that involves field work.

B: We also spent three days on a large three-masted sailboat that took us out to sea to collect samples in the currents of cold and warm water where the auks find their food. You can be sitting on the deck counting birds...nothing, one, nothing, nothing…3,400!

Back to Pomona

K: “I’m happy I can give my students an opportunity to experience all levels of a project. Allison was in the field for the data collection and has been helping with the analyses and doing her own analysis for her senior thesis. She wrote a poster and presented it at the Pacific Seabird Group meeting, where she got an honorable mention. A few people asked when she was going to get her Ph.D. I told them she was just graduating from college.”

B: “It’s been very cool. In addition to learning about biology, it’s been interesting to make the connection between climate and predators. I’ve also appreciated having a role model like Professor Karnovsky. To have strong women scientists in this department, who can do so many different things, is awesome.”

The “Arctic Flu”

Allison was awarded a Fulbright to return to the Arctic to study at the university in Longyearbyen, where she’ll look at the relationship between migrating geese and plants of the tundra and how they are affected by climate change. She’ll probably cross paths with Laurel McFadden ‘06, who also spent a summer as a research assistant for Karnovsky and was awarded a Watson Fellowship to photograph people north of the Arctic Circle. Karnovsky will also go back, this time with three students from Pomona. They will all be there for the International Polar Year, a collaborative international effort to study the polar regions that takes place every 50 years.

K: Every student I bring to the Arctic gets the “Arctic flu.” You catch the bug and you have to go back. It becomes a part of you. One of the things I love about it that’s different from the Antarctic is that there are all these wildflowers and land mammals, in addition to the huge number of seabirds. It’s extraordinarily beautiful – harsh, stark, but full of color.

Research at Pomona