PART V: SOPHOMORE YEAR

I realized special things can happen when I apply myself.

So, I failed my first physics exam in college but, that didn’t stop me. I started spending hours per day studying, preparing for my next exam, determined to get an A. I started spending my weekends studying as well which was the beginning of losing my weekends forever (yay). My second exam came and went: 83 (B). My third exam came and went: 87 (B) – I believe was the grade. Then, the final. 95 (A). I got a B in the course with the highest score on the final exam and that’s when I decided I wasn’t going to look back.
I realized that with some effort I can actually do something special, no matter how hard it was. This is also right around the time when I started opening my eyes to other opportunities around me like scholarships, special physics courses or else that involved studying abroad, joining the Society of Physics Students (SPS), getting involved in the physics department as a work study student (paid!), and more. I slowly started becoming known in my department and in the college of science and technology (CSAT at Radford). That’s when I just happened to hear about the Arctic Geophysics course that you have to apply to in order to take the class and earn credit – that takes you to ALASKA to do REAL, hands-on research! At this same time I had heard about the physics department scholarship which would be useful if I ended up getting into the course. I don’t remember what I was doing exactly but I remember interrupting something with my work study to run to the computer lab to quickly apply for both the geophysics course and the scholarship. I spent maybe an hour in total doing this. I thought, there’s no way I’ll get either of these things but at least I can say I tried. What do ya know? A month later during that fall semester of my sophomore year, I got an e-mail congratulating me on being accepted into the Arctic Geophysics course but also outlining the thousands of dollars it took to take the course in totality.

For now, I skipped over the cost and called my dad and said DAD! YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT I JUST GOT INTO! I’M GOING TO ALASKA! I remember the pride I felt and the pride I think my dad felt. I think I briefly said something like, it’s a lot of money though, and my dad saying, we will work it out.

I quickly and eagerly accepted to be in the course and then began the process of preparing to spend my sophomore year spring break in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city of the United States.

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This was taken on my third trip to Barrow, Alaska. Taken approximately a quarter mile from the shore on the Arctic sea ice by our fabulous photographer. You can see the “Ice Walkers” (us) as the locals called us.
You see, I knew I chose physics so that I could get closer to the stars and sure, this geophysics course wasn’t exactly in my field of interest but, it’s hand on research experience. That is invaluable in any field and I mean, you get to go to Alaska. Who wouldn’t want to go there?

The Arctic geophysics course at Radford is offered every other year on the even years. I attended in 2014 and again in 2016 for ice research (but also travelled there in 2015 to perform unrelated bird research). It is a pretty intense course. You spend January, February, and half of March preparing for the 1-2 weeks the team spends in Barrow, Alaska in mid-March. This includes practicing with the equipment on campus, learning the theory behind the equipment, developing writing skills to log the research adequately, familiarizing ourselves with the data reduction software (RES2DINV), and preparing ourselves for the ICE COLD.

If I’m not mistaken, we even spent Saturday mornings preparing for much of the spring semester leading up to spring break. As I mentioned before, it also took a lot of money. I remember my family cashed out the government savings bonds that was gifted at my birth to pay for just lodging. I also remember the plane ticket alone being about $1,100.00. Then there is food when you get there, warm clothes (thankfully parkas, ice boots, and very warm carharts were provided),  and the actual cost of the course (included in the tuition bill for spring semester). It is no easy thing to prepare for with prices like that! It did help that I was awarded the Fall 2014 scholarship from the physics department – about $450 I think it was. Nowadays, I do believe there is more funding in place for this same course at Radford but, it could still be better so that anyone can consider doing something like this (regardless of income status)! I know the person running the course, who became a close mentor of mine in my undergraduate career, is dedicated to making this happen.

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Part of the research team, taking a break, at the 2014 trip to Barrow. I think I’m the weirdo that is still on the ground, mid-jump.
Let me remind you: I had no research experience of any kind and had ONE physics course (introductory physics at that) under my belt. I still have the original e-mail of my offer to the course and Dr. Rhett Herman, the instructor of the course, wrote, “I really love seeing when beginner students apply for opportunities like this, regardless of experience. Congrats!”

My second college spring break was indeed spent in the frigid, subzero temperatures of the Arctic circle in Barrow, Alaska. I spent nearly all day out on the ice, collecting data, and taking it all in that I was here. In Alaska. A half mile away from the shore, standing on what we later confirmed was about 2 meters of ice with a bear guard always on watch, surveying the ice beyond the ice ridge that protruded above the surface of the ice a couple hundred meters farther out. At night we reduced the data we had taken during the day on the ice. Some days it was too cold (colder than -45 degrees Fahrenheit or -42 degrees centigrade) to do any research and those were the days we took the time to venture out into town and speak with the Natives there. We immersed ourselves in the Utqiagvik culture and the Iñupiat heritage, attending the local museum, buying authentic homemade art engraved on baleen, learning their ancient dances and rituals, and trying whale blubber, a local town delicacy. It was more than a research experience as you might have guessed. It was truly a turning point for me in recognizing what is possible not just for my career but in what experiences the world has to offer.

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We employed several different ways to measure the ice thickness, the most straight forward one being to drill straight into the ice. In Barrow, Alaska, this is no easy task. The drill batteries in subzero temperatures had a very limited lifespan (without hand warmers, less than five minutes with a full charge) and we are too far from shore to simply connect to a constant power supply. Picture here is Jesse and Sarah, two research students on the first (2014) trip to Barrow.
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A sample of the results from the 2014 trip. The contour plot shows you the ice thickness, where you can see the ice is no thicker than about 2 meters. This was imaged using the OhmMapper resistivity array. Basically it measures the difference in resistivity of materials and this can tell you what material (water or ice) you are looking at. One of the big issues we found with this array is the signal would get lost once it passed the ice-water boundary. Water has very low resistivity, and therefore the signal easily escapes into the water, never making its way back to the receiver to be measured. The red dots indicate surface temperatures measured from the ice surface. We were looking to establish a correlation between the surface temperature and the thickness of the ice. If there is one, you’d easily be able to measure ice thickness and evolution over large areas!
Towards the end of the spring semester of my second year in college, I heard about ERIRA: Educational Research in Radio Astronomy, held for one week at the Green Bank Telescopes in West Virginia (where the world’s largest directional radio telescope sits!). Once again I applied on a whim, knowing that it was a nationwide program that accepted less than 20 students per year.

The summer of 2014, I went to Green Bank, West Virginia to use radio telescopes and learn firsthand radio astronomy from leading scientists.

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