Off to Greenland, with 200 lbs of Food and a Scientific Mission

Sarah HamiltonThough she didn’t have to pay to outfit her three-month research expedition to Greenland, Sara Hamilton ’16 was responsible for acquiring and shipping all the food she’ll need to survive this summer.

For several days, Hamilton’s dorm room was packed with over 200 pounds of non-perishable items, which spilled out of her closet and from underneath her bed. When she finally sent it off in advance of her June 1 arrival date in Greenland, her roommates were greatly relieved, she said.

This summer, Hamilton has a $5,000 Research Experience for Undergraduates grant, provided through the National Science Foundation, to join scientists from the University of Alaska, Anchorage who are studying arctic plants in western Greenland. Hamilton will live in a tent in the tiny scientific outpost of Kangerlussuaq, where she’ll spend her days doing research in shrubby tundra below some of Greenland’s glaciers (and potentially catching sight of muskoxen and caribou).

OFFICE

The scientific station’s “office” yurt, according to Sara Hamilton. The yurt houses scientific equipment.

A biology and gender and women’s studies double major, Hamilton will be partnering up with a Ph.D. plant physiology student. The two will look into the respiratory rates of the roots of common shrubs in Greenland, the Betula nana and Salix glauca, to determine how carbon is cycling through the plant. This work links to a broader investigation into how northern plants overall are being affected by climate change, according to Hamilton. “The arctic is warming way faster than anywhere else on the planet,” she said. “And while grass and shrub species were once about equal, with a healthy variety of both, now with the warming, grasses are receding and shrubs are taking over.”

Janet Gannon, a biology lab instructor who has worked with Hamilton, said she’s seen Hamilton repeatedly jump at the chance to take on new challenges. “She possesses great intellectual curiosity,” Gannon said. “I think she’s well prepared for her work in Greenland, and it will be exciting to see what ideas she brings back with her, both as a scientist and student.”

Despite being just a sophomore, Hamilton already has a relatively long record of research experience. As a high school student, she studied mercury levels in bottle-nosed dolphins. Last summer, she worked on an independent research project at Bowdoin’s Scientific Field Station on Kent Island in the Bay of Fundy. There she began a longterm study into how red tide neurotoxins affect the bay’s food web, particularly small organisms such as periwinkles, dog whelks, limpets, green crabs or “any creature crawling around in the intertidal zone,” she said. Next semester she will explore with Visiting Assistant Biology Professor Sam Taylor how climate change is affecting switchgrass, a biofuel plant grown in western United States.

Although she is curious about a wide range of scientific topics, Hamilton says she is particularly interested in projects with environmental applications. “I’m interested in adding to the knowledge about climate change and finding more solutions to mitigate it and help prepare for it,” she said.

Hamilton attributes her love of natural spaces to growing up in Staunton, Va., a valley town set within the Appalachian Mountains. “I want to do something to help preserve these spaces and call attention to all the organisms that don’t have a voice to let people know how we’re damaging them,” she said. “With science, I can be intellectual and also do something I’m passionate about.”

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