The Calm after the Storm

The core group has been gone from Cherskiy for not an hour, and already an eerie silence has settled over the Northeast Science Station.  Craig Connoly, Seth Spawn, and myself, along with some German students, are all that remain here.  As “special” returning students, we will remain in Cherksiy until August 15th to carry on additional work of our own, collect some data for other projects, and to tie up loose ends for the core students.

Sam Dunn at the tundra study site.

Sam Dunn at the tundra study site.

This has been my third time at the station and the first since 2011. In the time since my first experiences with Polaris in 2010 and 2011, and my return as a 4th year PhD candidate this year, I have changed a great deal both professionally and personally.  Coming back after such a long time away has brought a wealth of unexpected things; improvements to the station facilities, hot sauce at every meal, a real coffee pot.  Most importantly, the way I view research and especially intensive field research has changed greatly during this time.  I have shifted from being a sink, to a source of knowledge…weird, right?

Many of my Polaris colleagues from the 2010 and 2011 expeditions are now in, or have already completed a research-based graduate program. Many of us have continued to study Arctic ecosystems, but some have not.  I am not sure what the research-career retention rate among former Polaris students is, but I know that it is high.  Why? Because the overall influence that our collective experiences here have had on the way we do science, think critically, and most importantly, deal with failure has kept us interested, positive, and moving forward. What failure?

This place, while beautiful, unexplored scientifically, and exciting, is fraught with peril from a research perspective.  The best laid plans can easily be torn asunder, for no reason at any time. Equipment breaks, samples are lost or contaminated, bad weather prevents field work, etc.  The list can go on and on, and every Polaris alumnus will likely have a story about how they had to change their project completely because of reasons X, Y, and Z.  This is a harsh, but effective place to be trained as a scientist because it requires the adoption of additional skills that are not as easily acquired in the classroom or field site within range of a major city. The ability to cope with the unexpected, to keep up morale, to stay focused on the questions first and the methods second, and most importantly, to make the best of any situation.

As the Polaris Project moves on to another chapter of its existence, I expect that the skills I have acquired here through experience will carry me forward.  Who knows, maybe I will bring my own students here one day.