Land & Environment

On Alaska's North Slope, USU Undergrad Explores 'America's Last Frontier'

Wanted: Scientist to work 10-hour days, six days a week with one day off to do laundry and other personal chores. Location: 158 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Work environment: communal living, five-minute showers (maybe once a month, if that), average daily temperature — cold, mosquitoes — yes. Applicant must be able to carry a 100-lb. pack on a four-mile hike.
 
Sound inviting? To Shannon Babb, a Utah State University Undergraduate Research Fellow, it sounds ideal.
 
“I love the cold,” says Babb, who graduates from USU this fall with a bachelor’s degree in watershed and earth systems. “I can’t think of another place I’d rather be doing research. Toolik Lake and the surrounding area is one of the few places on earth mostly untouched by humans and their pollution.”
 
For the past three summers, the Utah native has ventured north to Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology Toolik Field Station to meticulously collect and analyze data at one of the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research Network sites. Nestled in the foothills of the Brooks Range, Toolik is more than a 350-mile drive north of Fairbanks and 117 miles south of the Arctic Ocean.
 
On a typical day, Babb and one or two colleagues loaded up 100 lbs. of equipment between them into backpacks and set out on foot or by helicopter to varied research sites. The scientists collected fish and water samples and, sitting in a raft, took such measurements as water salinity, dissolved oxygen, turbidity and pressure.
 
The researchers lugged water samples back to the station, which caused each pack to gain about 60 lbs. Babb says 105 lbs. was her limit.
 
“That was pushing it, but the whole experience has been great,” says Babb, a Quinney Scholar in the College of Natural Resources. “Research for undergrads would be impossible without a good faculty mentor and I’m fortunate to have one of the best.”
 
With Chris Luecke, head of USU’s Department of Watershed Sciences, Babb is studying the impact of climate change on watersheds and their aquatic inhabitants. Her research won’t yield quick answers; her patient toil contributes to a growing data set aimed at identifying long-term trends.  
 
“Scientists have collected data at Toolik for more than 30 years,” Babb says. “This isn’t the kind of short term project where a simple snapshot of data will answer questions about climate trends and their impact on the environment.”
 
The field station’s isolated location makes it an expensive site to maintain scientific personnel, she says. And the brief summer offers a short window of opportunity for scientists to collect data samples. So, from May 26 to July 17, the sun never sets and, seemingly, the work never stops.
 
“It’s probably one of the world’s most remote locations still connected by a road,” Babb says. “At Toolik, we work hard to take advantage of the time we have, but we play hard, too.”
 
Weekly bonfires serve as both waste and stress management tools for the tight-knit research community.
 
“As you can imagine, there’s no regular waste pick-up, so much of the trash is burned,” she says. “But bonfires are also a popular social gathering.”
 
Residents of Toolik also enjoy several summer holidays, including Independence Day and the summer solstice. Dressing up in costumes, ingeniously fashioned from used lab equipment and any other discarded materials at hand, is a favorite pastime.
 
“We also celebrate ‘Christmas in July’ with handmade ‘Secret Santa’ gifts and hold an annual talent show,” Babb says.
 
But one of the most relaxing social gatherings is taking a sauna and bathing in the lake.
 
“Collecting data in the field all day, you get sweaty, muddy and you’re covered in DEET to protect yourself from hordes of mosquitoes,” Babb says.
 
The mandatory, five-minute-limit showers, used to protect the field station’s precious water supply, just don’t cut it.
 
“So, it makes more sense to take a sauna and relax in the lake — with special, biodegradable soap,” she says. “And it’s the one place at Toolik where discussion of work is off limits.”
 
Back in Logan, Babb spends her time in the lab analyzing samples and enjoys assisting with teaching in Geography 1000.
 
“Being able to teach and pass on a little of what I’m learning has been really rewarding,” she says. “It’s wonderful to spark someone’s interest in research who’s just getting started.”
 
As she prepares to graduate, Babb hopes to participate in a research internship, and perhaps return to work the field season at Toolik, before pursuing graduate study in watershed sciences.
 
“For me, my undergraduate education has been much more than earning a diploma,” says the 22-year-old, who was a three-time state winner of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize in high school, entered USU as an Intel Science Talent Search Scholar and was named a 2008 Governor’s Scholar. “Through my water research, I’ve developed deep friendships and gained experiences that I’ll use throughout my career. And, my goodness, I danced at a Nobel Prize Ball and traveled to the White House to meet President Bush. I’ve gained special memories that will last a lifetime.”  
 
Related links:
 
Contact: Shannon Babb, s.babb@aggiemail.usu.edu
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,maryann.muffoletto@usu.edu
USU undergrad Shannon Babb at Alaska research site

For the past three years, graduating senior Shannon Babb has conducted research at Alaska's remote Toolik Field Station north of the Arctic Circle.

USU undergrad Shannon Babb inside Alaskan research lab

Back in the lab, Babb, an Undergraduate Research Fellow and Quinney Scholar, analyzes samples. Great undergrad research experiences are made possible, she says, by good faculty mentors.

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