So what is University of Alaska Anchorage doing in the Arctic? Short answer: lots and lots of research, from squirrel studies to climate science. Professor Loren Buck has been a fixture at Toolik Field Station—a research site that attracts scientists from all over the world—since 1992. This year, he’s working with UAA co-principal investigator Cory Williams, Ph.D., and Professor Brian Barnes, co-principal investigator from University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a team of research associates to study squirrel chronobiology.
Name: Loren Buck, Ph.D.
Home university: University of Alaska Anchorage, professor of biologial sciences
Background: Loren is the principal investigator on this Team Squirrel project. His research credentials are extensive. He made his first trip to Toolik Field Station in 1992.There's a fighting chance that there are never more than two degrees of separation between Loren and anyone conducting biological research in Alaska. He moved from UAF to UAA in 2006 and continues to work closely with colleagues at both universities.
A pickup truck tailgate is the field biologist’s work desk in and around Toolik Field Station (TFS). It’s a great place to assemble your gear, lay out maps to plot a day’s expeditions and, if you’re lucky enough to work within hiking distance of your truck, you can process samples there throughout the day. Converts to picnic seating at lunchtime.
A typical tailgate seats three hungry researchers plus sizable brown bag lunches, which may include some treats from the TFS candy bar. You’ll find it next to the ice cream freezer.
The team works in a designated research area, so tagging the arctic ground squirrels and uploading their information to a database is useful, not just for them but for other researchers. Here Jeanette Moore, research technician, and Alicia Gillean, NSF PolarTREC teacher, work together to measure, tag and release an animal.
Whether it’s a casual observer or a potential funder asking, the subtext of the question is usually, “What’s in it for me?”
Since the arctic ground squirrel enjoys the comfort of a cozy burrow during inclement weather—they’ll peek outside and if it looks nasty, turn right around and head back to bed—these are good days to catch up on work in the lab.
Toolik Field Station is one of those safe spaces where it’s not unusual to spend dinnertime puzzling out innovative ways to collect whale blow—a plastic bottle on a long stick, a dry ice pop suspended from a helicopter, a drone?
You can ask, “Hey, can we talk squirrel brains later?” and get a sincere response.
At last night’s Toolik Talking Shop, Team Squirrel got to shelve their squirrel thinking for an hour while Kathleen Hunt, a research scientist from the New England Aquarium, regaled a Carhartt-and-XtraTuf-wearing scientist crowd in the Toolik Field Station (TFS) community center with amazing stories about whale poop.
I met up with another UAA crew today, Team Isotope. They showed me a few things about drilling in the Arctic, like use an extra sharp drill bit. Because under all that saturated moss, about one finger-length down, it’s rock-solid ice this time of year. Rather than oil deposits, though, they’re plying the tundra for water, identifying the isotopes as part of a study examining the movement of water through the Arctic ecosystem.