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Bowdoin Students Enjoy Unique Access to Arctic Research

From within his tent on the northwest coast of Greenland, Bossin sees ice floes stream past.

Story posted November 28, 2008

The pools of water above the polar ice cap were surreal, electrifying greens and blues. The irony of their beauty wasn't lost on Eli Bossin '09, as he peered from the C-130 military transport plane that was flying him to the Arctic.

"I was watching the ice cap melt," he marveled. "Actually flying and watching the streams and holes form is entirely different than reading about it in a journal or scientific report."

arctic from air
Above the ice sheet. Eli Bossin photo.

The Bowdoin history major was embarking on an adventure very few undergraduates have the opportunity to do. He was joining a NSF grant-funded, six-week archaeological dig on the northwest coast of Greenland, headed by Dr. Genevieve LeMoine, curator-registrar of Bowdoin's Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum.

The very same plane that dropped him in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, returned just hours later with Kristina Sorg '09, another Bowdoin undergraduate researcher. She had spent a month camping in subzero temperatures on central Greenland's ice cap with an international team of scientists, while collecting gas samples for Bowdoin Associate Professor of Physics Mark Battle.

"This was the first scientific work I had done at all," said Sorg. "My parents thought I was a little crazy at first," the physics major added, laughing. "But it was fun. I got to see how science actually works, to be part of a team, and I learned a lot about how different scientists do their work. Even though I spent every day digging in the snow, it didn't get boring. It's really refreshing working outside, even when it's freezing cold. That's nice to know about myself for the future, when I consider what I potentially want in a career."

Eli and Kristina meet up
Bowdoin student researchers Eli Bossin and Kristina Sorg happen to meet up in Greenland.

The fact that two undergraduate students from the same school would serendipitously overlap at the edge of the Arctic Circle, isn't as uncommon as one might think. Bowdoin has one of the oldest Arctic studies programs in the nation.

"Bowdoin students are among a handful of undergraduates nationwide who have the opportunity to be directly involved in Arctic research," noted Susan Kaplan, director of the Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Program. "In addition to faculty-mentored scientific and environmental fieldwork, students also have access to the collections of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, which provide a rich ground for scholarly, curatorial and cultural studies."

Indeed, said Bossin, it was his summer job at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum following his sophomore year that "got me hooked on the Arctic." That summer, he and classmate Hillary Hooke '09 were charged with photographing and taking an inventory of every object in the Museum's collection.

Eli digging
Bossin hard at work excavating an Inuit site.

"They told me, you're going to be searching for insect infestations," recalls Hooke, grinning. "You're not afraid of bugs, are you? And I'm like, of course not!"

It took the pair over a month to pore over thousands of objects, including such historical treasures as Robert Peary's sledge, the shirt he wore when he reached the North Pole, and a full range of Inuit artwork and tools. Another student took an inventory of the Museum's rare archival photographs and film footage, much of which MacMillan shot himself over the span of his Arctic career.

"The objects are so beautiful," says Hooke. "Being able to actually touch everything, see it, know it in three-dimensions ... I loved the ivories. You can't believe how intricately detailed they are. And to think, oh my word, Robert Peary sat in this high chair, Josephine Peary wore this fur coat." She pauses and smiles. "That coat would fall on us constantly, it was like a specter in the back of the collection."

hillary hooke
Hillary Hooke '09 inspects a garment for bug damage.

As they began their senior year, Hooke and Bossin were again working together—this time, sorting through the many artifacts collected during the Greenland excavation—some of which Bossin uncovered himself.

"We excavated six houses that spanned a couple of immigrations of Inuit into Greenland, one going back a thousand years," he said. "We found pieces of ivory, metal. There were several kinds of metal that they used to make tools. One came from a meteorite 200 miles away. They actually chipped pieces off that a thousand years ago and flattened it into blades."

He demonstrated the technique he used in the field to identify meteor steel shards—waving a small magnet over a rock fragment it to see if it adhered. It jumped into his hand and, satisfied, he slipped the sample back into its plastic pouch, labeled KNK2669, identifying the house and quadrant where it was found. (Listen to Eli Bossin's podcasts from Greenland.)

As she stood beside Eli and sifted through bits of baleen, wood and animal bone, English major Hillary Hooke acknowledged that her path of Arctic research might seem less "glamorous" than students who do fieldwork, but says it's no less unique.

"I got a fellowship that allowed me to go through four historic journals of members of Peary's 1908 expedition from New York to the North Pole and back, including Peary himself," she said. "It really gave me a good perspective on these men who went to the Arctic and why they went. I could glimpse into their inner lives."

josephine peary in fur
Josephine Peary at a campsite in northern Greenland, 1891, courtesy Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum.

Out of that research, Hooke developed an online blog of diary entries from that historic expedition, which is now part of the Arctic Museum's Web site. (Visit the historic blog.) The diaries also provided fodder for an independent study project. Hooke, who is an English major, is comparing literature of Arctic exploration at the turn of the 20th century, with an emphasis on the women who traveled with their husbands to the Arctic.

"Why was it important for these women to go to the Arctic?" she pondered. "It was a such a male-dominated scene and traditional gender roles would say that these women should hold the fort back at home, rather than enacting this grand imperial drama on the Arctic. It's a fascinating question."

kristina sorg in the snow
Kristina Sorg '09 inside a nine-foot-deep snow pit she helped to dig, as part of research on snow density and porosity in Greenland's ice cap.

For her part, Sorg is now helping Associate Professor of Physics Mark Battle analyze some of the data she helped to collect in Greenland. The gas samples she took from deep within the snow pack, or firn, are part of a larger data analysis Battle is conducting on atmospheric composition and climate change—which included a research trip to the South Pole a few years ago with another Bowdoin student.

"The cost of bringing a student researcher—or any researcher for that matter—to the ice sheet is significant," noted Battle, "but there are many other ways that students play an important part in this work." In addition to computer modeling and data analysis, students have helped Battle build and maintain air-monitoring equipment in the Harvard Forest.

"I think this kind of work has a big impact on Bowdoin students," noted Genevieve LeMoine. "In a sense, it's like a study abroad program—it broadens their experience and affects their whole outlook.

"The Arctic is everywhere in the media right now," continued LeMoine, "but because Bowdoin students get more direct access to data - whether through fieldwork, archival projects, or just by coming to the Arctic Museum—they get exposed in a more direct way. We don't want to shoehorn students into graduate schools, but one of our hopes is that we will generate enough interest among students that work with us that some will further their studies, whether in climate science, anthropology, geology, or even more policy-related fields such as political science and government."

Narrated Arctic Slideshows

Eli Bossin swimsThree Bowdoin students share anecdotes and images from their Arctic studies at Bowdoin -- whether handling precious Inuit artifacts in the Peary-McMillan Arctic Museum, working on an archaeological dig in Greenland, or coring for gas samples deep within the polar cap.

View Arctic audio slideshows »

Pictured above:
From within his tent on the northwest coast of Greenland, Bossin sees ice floes stream past.

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"Bowdoin students are among a handful of undergraduates nationwide who have the opportunity to be directly involved in Arctic research..."
— Susan Kaplan