Back to the Arctic: Clark University student researchers embark on polar science expeditions

June 19, 2013
siberia frey

A view of the Kolyma River watershed in the Siberian Arctic. (Photo: Karen Frey)

While basting on a crowded beach or waiting for the AC to cool your sweltering car interior, imagine yourself cutting through Arctic seas aboard an icebreaker or exploring the wilderness from your base aboard a river barge in Siberia. That's where some intrepid Clark University students and graduate researchers will be as they embark on research missions this summer.

The young scientists are students from the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University, each participating in the Polar Science Research Laboratory, created by Assistant Professor Karen Frey in 2007.

Polar research atop permafrost in Siberia

Departing in June and crossing more than a dozen time zones, Sam Berman '14 and Clark graduate Claire Griffin '10 will both return to the Polaris Project, an international scientific collaboration where a select group of students joins seasoned researchers on an annual month-long field expedition to the Siberian Arctic, specifically in the Kolyma River watershed, Earth's largest watershed that is completely underlain by permafrost.

Sam Berman '14

Sam Berman '14

Berman and Griffin are two of just three students in the Polaris Project Aquatics Group, returning students who will focus on applying their research experience on productivity. Casey DeMarsico '14, a Clark senior this fall, joins the Polaris Project for the first time, one of only 15 undergraduates from around the world making up the Core Group.

Griffin, who first participated in the Polaris Project research in 2009, is now in the Ph.D. program at the Marine Science Institute, University of Texas at Austin, continuing her research in Arctic river biogeochemistry and satellite remote sensing. She received a B.A. in geography at Clark University in 2010. "My first trip to Cherskiy left an indelible mark, hooking me on Arctic research and a continuing interest in the changes going on in Russian ecosystems," she writes.

Claire Griffin

Claire Griffin

Berman a senior at Clark, is studying Earth System Science and Geographic Information Science (GIS). He completed first research field season last summer in East Siberia, where he looked at variability in chlorophyll biomass as an implication for primary production in thermokarst and floodplain lakes. He is interested in the link between frozen nutrient-rich soils in the Arctic and their continuing influence on Arctic aquatic biogeochemistry.

Team scientists contribute to a Polaris Project blog and journals. Already hard at work in the field, Berman posted a recent entry, where he writes, "In the past few days we have accomplished a great deal, numerous aquatic surveys that benefit the Polaris database, methane capture, isotope samples, carbon measurements, lake bottom mapping, and feeding the hungry Siberian mosquitoes.

Casey DeMarsico '14

Casey DeMarsico '14

Much of our time here so far has been proving our methods for our individual projects, and fixing issues as they arise. Nothing in science is expected to always go smoothly, but with the combination of all of our skills, the help of those who run the Northeast Science Station, and the assistance of those back home, we have accomplished, and will accomplish, what we came here to do, and more." Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) since 2008, the Polaris Project trains future leaders in arctic research and informs the public about the Arctic and global climate change. Frey is a principal investigator (PI) of the Polaris Project and has conducted fieldwork with her students and the team in Siberia for several seasons (2008, 2009, 2012).


Studying climate impact on Arctic Ocean ice

Christie Wood

Christie Wood


Kristen Shake

Working in another of Frey's research areas are two of Frey's Ph.D. students: Kristen Shake and Christie Wood. They will conduct their research from aboard the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfred Laurier, cruising in the northern Bering and Chukchi Seas, from July 9 to July 25. The work is part of the NSF-sponsored Distributed Biological Observatory (DBO) that will comprise five field seasons and on which Frey is a co-PI.

Wood's research focuses on how variations in climate impact the Arctic marine system. In particular, she investigates changes in sea ice and its effects on the ecology and biogeochemistry of the Arctic Ocean. Her dissertation research focuses on remote sensing of sea ice and understanding the impacts of sea ice decline in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas on the dynamics of dissolved organic matter, which plays an important role in the marine ecosystem as both a carbon source for the microbial food web and as an inhibitor of light. She received an M.S. in physical oceanography at the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography, and her B.S. in mathematics/Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, at MIT.

Shake's research interests center around Arctic marine policy. Changing seasonal sea ice patterns in the Arctic Ocean are creating avenues for economic development in the form of northern shipping routes, off-shore oil extraction, and access to large natural gas reserves. At Clark University, Kristen will have the opportunity to examine these issues in the context of geography and explore the interfaces between science and policy within the DBO project. Shake, is originally from Alaska and earned an M.S. in Chemical Oceanography and a B.S. in Geography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.


Assistant Professor Karen Frey

Frey's research interests involve the combined use of field measurements, satellite remote sensing, and GIS to study large-scale linkages between land, atmosphere, ocean, and ice in polar environments. Over the past decade, she has conducted field-based research in West and East Siberia, the North Slope of Alaska, as well as the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas. Her most recent work focuses on the hydrological and biogeochemical impacts of terrestrial permafrost degradation across Siberia and the biological and biogeochemical impacts of sea ice decline in polar shelf environments. She is currently the major research adviser for nine Ph.D., M.A., and B.A. students, working on projects in Siberia, Alaska, West Antarctica, the Himalayas, and the Chukchi/Beaufort Seas.

Founded in 1887 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Clark University is a small, liberal arts-based research university addressing social and human imperatives on a global scale. Nationally renowned as a college that changes lives, Clark is emerging as a transformative force in higher education today. LEEP (Liberal Education and Effective Practice) is Clark's pioneering model of education that combines a robust liberal arts curriculum with life-changing world and workplace experiences. Clark's faculty and students work across boundaries to develop solutions to contemporary challenges in the areas of psychology, geography, management, urban education, Holocaust and genocide studies, environmental studies, and international development and social change. The Clark educational experience embodies the University's motto: Challenge convention. Change our world.