How Science Moves

Jackson W. Drew

Jackson W. Drew

The goal of the Science on the Move collection is to expand science outreach both to and from incarcerated audiences.

Jackson W. Drew is a PhD candidate studying how shrubs respond to the environment and each other. Drew was born and raised in Fairbanks and loves living in Alaska. After graduation, Drew plans to continue to do research in Alaska.

I wake groggy, sleep crust dragging my eyes. Stumbling from my weatherport, I bee-line straight to the mess hall for coffee, the primary source of energy for many scientists. It's early, but already bustling with activity as my peers get ready for their day.

"Make sure to bring your waders, we are crossing several streams today," someone said.

"I'll carry the thaw probe if you bring the transect," said another.

Breathing in the aroma of the turbo-strength coffee, the warmth of the cup bleeds into my hands dispelling their chill.
"Good morning! What's the plan?" asked Emily. Emily is a research assistant.

I think of the day's goals. "Dig out more shrubs."

I live in Fairbanks, but it still took over six hours to arrive at Toolik Lake via the long bumpy, and infamous, road called the Dalton Highway. I have another two hours of driving to make it to my field sites situated just south of Pump Station 2, along the Sagwon Bluffs. This is where pioneers of a kind live, the farthest north location that Siberian alder exists in the Alaskan Arctic.
While eating breakfast, I can hear the churn of helicopter rotors spinning up. They are slinging more propane to a small nearby lake. I have lost count of the numerous trips they have already taken in their effort to warm the lake to simulate future climate change. It's a big effort, but almost everyone at the station is trying to figure out a small aspect of our shared question:. How will climate change change our world?

Belly full, turbo coffee cup refilled and lunch made, I gather my crew to head north. While driving I make sure to keep an eye out for any critters, or bigger than-normal potholes. Normally the biggest dangers of the road are equally if not more caffeinated drivers, but you never know when a caribou or muskox might pop into the road. As I zig from one pothole, and zag from another, I think of my partner.

She is far west of me, in the middle of the Bering Sea on a research fishing trawl. We cannot call each other, rather we can only send the occasional love-filled email. She is working long, 16-hour-plus days, pulling fish from the ocean to understand how the fish stocks are performing. She measures, weighs, and identifies each fish caught while her legs roll with the waves keeping her steadfast. The crew often eats freshly caught sushi thanks to a skilled shipmate, which for a land lover, is the only thing I envy about her fieldwork.

Pulling up to my sites I cannot help but marvel at the Sagwon bluffs. Stretching about a mile long, their wounded surface shines bright with mineral soil. A patchwork quilt of shrubs lay beneath. Mottled dark green against the landscape lies Siberian alder. These shrubs have a superpower, they have the ability to change the entire landscape given the opportunity. This superpower comes in the form of a partnership with a bacteria called Frankia that enables them to improve soil nutrients over time. A warmer Arctic is likely to make this superpower even stronger, so much so that it could help transform the land from short to tall-stature shrubs, perhaps eventually paving the way for invading trees.

We gather my favorite shrub excavating tools, a long thin spade shovel, and large pruning clippers, and head to the shrubs. Keeping a keen eye out for bears, I can feel my bear spray hanging on my belt as we cross the tundra. Tundra walking is a skill. Ankle-breaking tussocks spot the ground everywhere, requiring you to high step and take carefully measured steps between them. This makes even a 100-yard walk strenuous.

Now the hard part, how to dig up a huge shrub. Towering six or more feet, this many-headed hydra is firmly rooted. Thankfully, its largest roots only go down a few inches due to the permafrost, and instead, race across the ground in a tangled mess. Scrapping the shallow earth exposes the roots, letting me systematically cut and snip them free from encircling the main trunk. With my long shovel in hand, I shunt and pry underneath the cuts, wiggling the shrub from its hold on the earth.

As I heave against this beast I envy the scientists who sample small things. Things like air. Things that aren't heavy have to be dragged back to the truck. Or even better, things that you just record out in the field, like when a flower is formed or how many pollinators visit them. That sounds pretty nice as I make a final grunt finally dislodging the shrub. Sweat beading, breath heavy, I marvel at the revealed root mass. Dangling from the roots, exist golf ball-sized woody structures. These are the nodules that hold the Frankia. Examining them more closely reveal finger-like structures, and when broken bleed bright red as they react to the oxygen in the air. This is why I am breaking my back digging up these shrubs.

I repeat this process several more times throughout the day and drag them back to the truck. Exhausted from the day's labor we pack up and make the long drive back to camp. I think about the metaphorical road ahead. Soon I will have to disassemble the shrubs, cut their stems, and examine their growth rings. Using their wood I will answer how they grow over time and how those nodules impact their growth. I consider the amount of work I have completed, the work yet to do, and I realize the bulk of the work remains. I think this is true across all disciplines; it's the counting, measuring, analyzing, and interpreting that makes up the most important and often laborious part of any scientific endeavor. It's the part you complete in the lab or in front of your computer while you excitedly compute results. Where you put your findings into the context of what is known, mentally reshuffling your view of the world.

So, how does science move? At times it is fast like the helicopter slinging propane. Other times it is as turbulent as the high seas where you struggle to keep your feet underneath you. It can be as easygoing as carrying air. Often it is slow, a constant push to uproot an answer through the tangled mess of data. But ultimately it is a dance where after all the hard work and vast quantities of coffee have been drunk, does the answer you have been pursuing glide into place.
We invite story submissions from all science writers and we have amazing volunteers who provide feedback prior to publication. We'd love to read what you are developing!

To submit your writing or black-and-white sketches

Science on the Move Collection
The UAF Department of English
1747 S Chandalar Drive Gruening Suite 850
Fairbanks, AK 99775

We love sharing Short Stories