GLACIOLOGIST PROFILE: Leigh Stearns
What is your Job description?
I am a PhD student at the University of Maine, studying ice sheet dynamics and climate change. It’s odd to think that I may have a ‘job description’ because what I do varies so much from day to day: from analyzing satellite imagery on my computer to deploying instruments on fast moving glaciers in the polar regions.
What do you study now?
I am currently funded by NASA’s Earth System Science fellowship to investigate the contribution of Greenland and Antarctic glaciers to sea level rise. In particular, I study the dynamics of fast moving outlet glaciers and what initiates changes in their flow speed. I use a combination of field techniques and satellite imagery to measure these changes.
Whats the best thing about your job?
I love my job. It is equally adventurous and nerdy (two traits that I thought were mutually exculsive). I spend a lot of time camping in extremely remote (and cold!) locations, while also contributing to our understanding of glaciers in a changing climate.
What is the worst thing about your job?
That is a harder quiestion. As in most academic careers, I never feel like I am “off-duty”. There is always a paper that I should be reading or writing, or a task that I should be working on. Balancing school and real-life is difficult at times, especially when I do 2-3 months of field work each year.
What inspired you to first study science?
Like so many people who pursue academia, I had terrific teachers. Geology was the right fit for me because I really enjoy science and the outdoors. I also have always appreicated the structure and organization of the scientific method - first creating a hypothesis and then conducting experiments to test that hypothesis.
What do you do in a typical day?
A typical day in Maine involves a lot of satellite image processing and analyses. I spend most of the day working on imagery, writing and reading. There is no real typical day in the field. Whether we are in Greenland or Antarctica, our days revolve around obtaining good measurements in a safe manner.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a glaciologist?
The most important advice that I can give is to study hard in math and science, and be adaptable. Glaciologists tend to come from either geology or physics backgrounds, but that should not exclude others from pursuing the field. People who enjoy and thrive on field work also have to be adaptable; planes are often delayed, the weather is never reliable, equipment can fail in cold temperatures. I got hooked on glaciology by volunteering to be a field assistant over spring and summer breaks. Those experiences showed me what glaciology research entailed, and also what programs I could pursue for graduate school.
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