Science students trek to ‘land of fire and ice’

This finals week, students travelled to Iceland for the Environmental Science in the Field class. This year’s two weeks of research are part of the ninth iteration of the class. / Courtesy of Gentry Laughlin

While some may think of Iceland as just an island with a misleading name, 15 Vassar students are currently taking advantage of its rich, diverse terrain to conduct research.

The Environmental Studies Program (ENST) often organizes field trip courses to allow students observe the relationship between a culture and its environment. The students take a credited class during the semester that is followed by a two-week adventure. This trip generally takes place over October or spring break; however, this year it is being held after finals week. Previous field trips for ENST 254: Environmental Science in the Field include studying coral reefs in Bermuda, hydrology in the Southwest and the effects of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

Each class is co-taught by professors from different departments in order to diversify and make the experience as interdisciplinary as possible. This year the trip is being led by Professor of Biology Mark Schlessman and Professor of Earth Science Kirsten Menking.

Menking, who co-taught the first iteration of the interdisciplinary course, stated in an email, “The first trip to the Pacific NW was largely a show and tell trip. While we saw a lot of amazing geology and biology, we realized with that trip that we had spent way too much time in the van driving from place to place.”

As a result, the professors decided to spend all or part of each trip at a field station where the students could take part in original hands-on research projects. Menking described the project for this trip, explaining, “We’ll be looking at how guano from seabirds affects soil fertility by measuring phosphate and nitrate concentrations in soils where Eider ducks and Arctic terns are nesting as well as in soils unaffected by either bird.”

In this year’s Environmental Science in the Field course, the ninth of its kind, the students will tour around eastern and southern Iceland from May 23 through June 5. In preparation for the trip, the class meetings provided an overview of the geology and biology of Iceland. “Each student picked a topic related to one of those fields and created a field guide for the other students,” explained geography major Gentry Laughlin ’19 in an email, who focused her guide on Icelandic cattle.

In addition to the training the actual course provided, each student was expected to complete several readings to better acclimate themselves to being in Iceland before their arrival. The students were provided with details about their trip in addition to background on Iceland’s geography, culture and more, information gained by the professors who scouted out the country during the summer of 2016.

In a written guide introducing Iceland to the students, the two professors discussed the landscape, describing the relationship between Iceland’s glaciers and volcanoes, as well as areas with recently planted trees: “The joke that ‘if you are lost in a forest in Iceland, you merely need to stand up,’ is very much true as most trees are not much over chest high.”

The professors covered local customs and proper etiquette for the visiting students as well, connecting them to proposals within the country to use tourism rather than industrial development to expand Iceland’s economy. “Inasmuch as we will be tourists in Iceland ourselves,” the professors asserted, “we hope to be able to give back to the island by participating in a project to plant native trees.” The website is careful to emphasize this balance between tourism and field work, claiming, “This is not a vacation.”

Schlessman gave a more detailed account of what students will be doing, stating in an email, “[The trip involves] hands-on study of the geology and ecology of Iceland, emphasizing environmental topics such as: climate change, fishing, soil erosion, reforestation, afforestation, carbon sequestration, geothermal energy, hydroelectric power generation, aluminum smelting, tourism, volcanism, glaciology.” He stressed that one of the program’s top priorities is to give the students an opportunity to study in an environment they might otherwise never experience.

Laughlin, for one, is eager to compare and contrast the Icelandic setting she will be surrounded by with what she is used to: “I’m interested in environmental preservation, particularly in the U.S., so it will be interesting to see how similar/different this location is to national forests I’m used to.”

Students on the Iceland trip examined the environment of Iceland, comparing it to the differences in the U.S. landscapes that they usually study. Pictured here, they enjoy a dip in the ocean. / Courtesy of Gentry Laughlin

Sophie Cash ’19 chose the class to diversify her experiences as well, stating in an email, “I love travel and one of my goals…is to learn about as many new places and cultures as I can. One of the biggest reasons is that as an Environmental Studies major, I’m especially interested in how a culture interacts with their environment, and how the biology is changing due to climate change. We’ll be studying a lot of that there, and Iceland is a prime example of a country whose biota will be affected by climate change.”

The professors organized both the in-class activities before the trip and the trip itself around the hope that students would absorb as much as possible from this experience. Schlessman explained, “[We wanted to] maximize their opportunity to learn as much as they possibly can about the unique environment of Iceland, the environmental challenges facing Icelanders, and how Icelanders are responding to those challenges.”

Cash, in explaining how she is not only intrigued by the biological aspects of the trip, but also wants to learn more about Iceland as a country, added, “I’m fascinated by Icelandic culture, and the very unique people, so I’m very excited to interact with them and learn about their history and perspective.”

The students will be able to learn about the diversity of both Icelandic culture and biology with their extensive schedule: They will begin by spending three nights at the Skalanes field station in eastern Iceland, studying invasive plants and Arctic bird colonies. The students will then travel to Skaftafell National Park, where they will explore glaciers, sample water and study plant colonization in deglaciated terrain. From there, they will visit different cities and partake in various activities such as climbing Eldfell volcano, visiting Reykjavík before flying home.

The trip is sure to give the students an incredible opportunity for hands-on work in their desired field, as well as a unique chance to travel to a foreign country. Laughlin commented, “I have taken many earth science classes and have a more complete understanding of geology, so doing field research will definitely help develop a more comprehensive understanding of the country and how biology and geology shape climate/culture.”


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