Mackenzie Grieman ’09 Traveled to Edge of the World Along Winding Career Path

Mackenzie Grieman '09 in Antarctica

Mackenzie Grieman ’09 saw the edge of the world five years ago, and when the notoriously bad Antarctica weather passed, the Pomona College alumna recalls, the glacial landscape was “absolutely gorgeous.”

“It’s one of the few times I’ve felt like I live on a planet,” she says.

Grieman found herself on the Earth’s most isolated continent for postdoctoral research with the University of Cambridge, among a group of scientists who drilled a 2,000-foot-long ice core from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The team was exploring how rapidly and voluminously the ice melted some 8,000 years ago, at the end of the Last Ice Age.

The scientists’ groundbreaking research—published recently in the journal Nature Geoscience and picked up by CNN and other news outlets—provides valuable insight on what the Earth was like eons ago and how climate change is affecting it today.

“It’s important to do this kind of work,” Grieman says, “because if you don’t actually understand how the planet changed in the past, it’s harder to understand how it’ll change in the future based on what we’re doing to it.”

At Pomona, Grieman majored in public policy analysis with an emphasis in chemistry, penning her thesis on genetic engineering. Toward the end of her senior year, she sought a career in science.

“In college I was very idealistic about saving the planet,” she says. “Then I became more interested in how the planet worked.”

Grieman began studying ice cores while pursuing her Ph.D. in Earth System Science at UC Irvine. There, she developed a methodology for the analysis of organic aerosols in ice cores and conducted research relating ice core biomass burning proxies to past climate.

A subsequent year away from science reignited Grieman’s love for the field, and in 2018, her postdoctoral work at Cambridge sent her to one of the coldest places on Earth to rekindle that flame.

Grieman was in Antarctica for about three months—splitting her time between the station and field site at Skytrain Ice Rise. In the field, she and her colleagues lived in tents for six weeks while they drilled into the ice cap to retrieve a 651-meter core for research.

Surviving such frigid conditions “is mostly about staying warm and staying dry,” Grieman says. “Some people were amazing out there. I was just cold.”

Cold as they were, Grieman and her fellow scientists revealed how global warming could spell doom for the West Antarctica Ice Sheet, which holds enough water to raise global sea levels by more than 16 feet should it collapse.

While no longer the idealist she was in college, Grieman remains hopeful research such as hers can promote civil discourse on climate change and bolster mitigation and adaptation efforts around the globe.

“I sometimes worry people don’t think science is important because we already know what climate change is,” she says. “But there’s still so much we don’t know. The Earth will change and has changed for thousands of years.”

“We’re just speeding it up,” she adds, “and we might not be able to take that.”

After concluding her postdoctoral research at Cambridge in 2021, Grieman spent two academic years as a visiting assistant professor of chemistry and environmental studies at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Students regularly plied her with questions about choosing a career.

Just find something you think is cool, she recalls answering. Then try it and see how far you can go.

For the past year, Grieman has been an associate editor at Springer Nature Group, the global publisher of scientific research.

In addition to set work hours and a warm Washington, D.C. office, “This job is cool in that I get to read about a bunch of different research areas,” she says. “One minute, I’m reading about deep ocean circulation. The next minute, I’m reading about wildfires in the Arctic.”

As content as she is at the moment reading others’ exhaustive work, Grieman at times misses being in the field with peers who want to understand the world better and see no issue camping at the base of the globe to do so.

But research is strenuous, consuming, isolating work, she says, so for the time being, she’s just fine living vicariously through those doing the exploring.

“We’re finding out new things about the world all the time,” Grieman says. “I really hope climate research gets a lot of attention because the things we can find out now are pretty incredible.”